So many women and girls, right down to pre-teens, notice a change in their breast and jump to the scary conclusion that it might signal breast cancer. Nearly always, these changes are normal and harmless; but here are 10 symptoms that actually might indicate a serious breast-health issue.
Attention, teenagers: I know you can feel scared about how your breasts are changing and growing, and about that lump (or itchiness, or pain) you feel. But honestly? Statistically speaking, your chance of being diagnosed with breast cancer right now is, at most, about two in a million. So please don’t stress over breast cancer.
Hey, all of you women under 40 years old: of every 100 women diagnosed with breast cancer, only seven are under age 40. While your chance of having breast cancer is certainly greater than that of a teen, it’s nowhere near as significant as it is for women in their 60s. So that lump you feel? Get it examined, but it’s very probably not cancer.
Breast cancer incidence goes up as women age. So the younger you are, the less likely any breast change you notice might signal cancer. Keep that in mind as you read through the following breast issues. If you’re experiencing any of these, see a doctor. But, depending on your age – don’t panic. Chances are your symptom doesn’t involve cancer.
1. A new breast lump that doesn’t change or disappear within a month
If you’ve had a lump you’ve been worrying about for several years, and it hasn’t changed any, it’s probably just part of your natural anatomy. But if you suddenly notice a new lump – and it doesn’t become smaller or larger in synch with your period, and it doesn’t go away – then see a doctor, just to be safe.
2. A change in the texture of your breast skin.
Inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) is a rare type of breast cancer that usually begins not with a lump, but with a change in the appearance of your breast. One possible IBC symptom is a change to the texture of the skin on your breast. Run your fingers over your breast; if the skin has suddenly become pitted, ridged, or dimpled like an orange, see your doctor.
3. Bloody or dark brown discharge from one nipple
Many women experience milky, greenish, or clear nipple discharge; this is probably a symptom of hormonal fluctuations. But dark and/or bloody discharge, most likely from one but not both nipples, can signal a more serious issue: an infection, or even cancer. See your doctor.
4. Flattening or inversion of the nipple
Your nipples typically stick out a bit, right? More when they’re cold or aroused, less when they’re not; this is normal. But if you notice one of your nipples has suddenly decided to lie flat – or even point inward – see a doctor. There could be an interior growth pulling on it. Ditto dimpling or puckering of the skin and underlying tissue anywhere on your breast, which can signal an abnormal growth.
5. A change in the color of your breast
Did you wake up this morning and discover one breast has become quite pink, bordering on red? Or have you noticed a bruise, and you don’t remember banging into anything? Keep your eye on this color change. If it doesn’t start to disappear within a day or so, see a doctor. You may have an infection, or it may be an IBC symptom.
6. Any breast change after menopause
The majority of breast changes – pain, swelling, lumps – are probably due to hormonal fluctuations. But once you’re fully through menopause, your hormone level is greatly reduced, and it’s more likely that any breast changes can signal something serious. Whether you feel a new lump, notice one breast is larger than the other, or wake up to find one nipple looking red and infected, see your doctor. Chances are still good that you don’t have cancer, but you need to rule it out.
7. A sudden breast enlargement or change in shape
Many women naturally have one breast that’s larger than the other. But if your breasts are pretty much the same size, and you notice – overnight, or over the course of a few weeks – that one breast has grown significantly bigger than the other, it’s time to see your doctor. Ditto if one breast suddenly rides higher on your chest, looks rounder, or otherwise seems to change its shape.
8. Your breast seems infected
You feel some discomfort and pain in one breast and, when you take off your bra, you notice that your breast seems hot and swollen. It may look red; you may feel pain. You could be experiencing mastitis – or, less likely, IBC. See your doctor.
9. Irritation of the areola
The colored area surrounding your nipple – your areola – is very sensitive. It’s not unusual for it to itch, look chapped, or develop small pimples. However, if your areola has become red, looks like it has a rash, is flaking off skin, and/or looks scaly, you might have a rare type of breast cancer, Paget’s disease. While it’s much more likely the changes you notice are due to eczema or some other skin condition, do see your doctor to rule out Paget’s.
10. A new lump under your arm
Breast tissue isn’t confined to the front of your chest; it extends up into your armpit. So if you feel a new lump in your armpit, don’t assume it’s just a swollen lymph node – even though more than likely that’s exactly what it is. There’s also a chance it’s a breast tumor; so see your doctor.
"Breast Cancer Treatment." National Cancer Institute. February 25, 2016. Accessed March 12, 2016. http://www.cancer.gov/types/breast/patient/breast-treatment-pdq.
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Breast cancer survivor and award-winning author PJ Hamel, a long-time contributor to the HealthCentral community, counsels women with breast cancer through the volunteer program at her local hospital. She founded and manages a large and active online survivor support network.