Most women know a breast lump can mean cancer. Most also know to get lumps checked by a doctor. But there’s more to breast cancer than lumps.
Most women know a breast lump can mean cancer. Most also know to get lumps checked by a doctor. But there’s more to breast cancer than lumps. And women need to know both the common and not-so-common signs.
How to do a breast self-check
Examine your breasts at the same time each month
- Look at your breasts in the mirror with your shoulders straight and arms down. Breasts should be usual shape and color; look for dimpling or bulging of skin and changes in nipple, including discharge.
- Raise your arms and look for the same changes.
- Raise your right arm and, with your left hand examine the right breast. Use up-and-down or circular movements to feel your entire breast from top to bottom and side to side, from your armpit to your cleavage. Use varying degrees of pressure to feel the tissue just below the skin all the way to the deep tissue on top of your ribcage. Repeat on your left breast with your left arm raised.
- Lie down and repeat step 3.
While a new lump or mass in the breast can be a sign of cancer, every year thousands of women are diagnosed with breast cancers that don’t involve lumps. According to Natalie Stephens, M.D., director of Norton Healthcare’s breast health program, several other warning signs can indicate cancer.
Dr. Stephens advises women to be vigilant about any change in their breasts, not just lumps. To do that, women need to not only check their breasts regularly but know what their breasts look like normally. Breast tissue can vary in consistency and change throughout the menstrual cycle, therefore it’s best to check them at the same time every month.
“Especially with younger women who have firmer breasts and women with dense breast tissue, they need to do a self-check at least once a month,” Dr. Stephens said. “Stand in front of a mirror with your arms raised and look for any asymmetry — an area that pulls in, dimples or puckers; a change in size or shape; or a nipple that pulls back or inverts.”
Any of these subtle changes could be the first sign of invasive lobular cancer, according to Dr. Stephens, who said these types of symptoms do not show up on mammography. Any type of change should be evaluated by a doctor.
“Bloody nipple discharge also needs to be evaluated,” Dr. Stephens said. “On the other hand, clear or green discharge from both nipples is normal and occurs relatively frequently in post-menopausal women.”
Signs of breast cancer other than a lump
Other symptoms that should be reported to a doctor:
- Swelling of all or part of a breast (even if no distinct lump is felt)
- Skin irritation
- Redness, scaliness or thickening of the nipple or breast skin
- Swelling or lump under the arm or around the collar bone
Norton Cancer Institute’s Breast Health Program
Learn more about breast cancer prevention and detection.
Dr. Stephens says when it does come to a lump, if it’s painful it’s usually not cancer.
“Pain is associated with cancer in less than 7 percent of cases,” she said. “Also, noncancerous lumps typically do not remain month after month.”
Still, if a new lump stays for more than a four-week cycle, get it checked. Although it may be nothing to worry about, you will have peace of mind knowing that it was checked.
“It’s understandable to worry when you feel a lump, but they are common,” Dr. Stephens said. “Several benign (noncancerous) conditions involve lumps. In fact, eight out of 10 lumps end up being benign.”