When you discover a lump in your breast, and a few weeks later it’s still there, you call the doctor. Or when your breast swells up overnight, and is incredibly painful, you call the doctor.
But what about if you squeeze your nipple and some fluid leaks out? Is that normal? Or when your breasts ache and throb with pain? Is that normal?
Should you call the doctor, or wait and see what develops?
There are definitely breast issues that demand quick medical attention. That lump you feel, or the pain and swelling, might turn out to be nothing serious in the end. But you need to find out for sure what’s causing those worrisome symptoms ASAP. Our post, “Is This Normal?” 10 Reasons to Call the Doctor is a great guide to these potentially serious breast issues.
The following breast issues, while there’s a chance they can signify cancer, are much more likely to be relatively benign. If you experience any of these, chances are it’s OK to wait a bit and see what develops before seeking medical help.
1. Any symptom involving both breasts
It’s highly unlikely that cancer would be diagnosed in both breasts at once. Any symptoms that affect both breasts are probably hormonal or systemic in nature, rather than cancer.
2. Nipple discharge
While bloody or dark nipple discharge can sometimes signify cancer, most nipple discharge is hormonal in nature. If your nipple discharge is clear, milky, or greenish; and if it happens only when you squeeze your nipple; and/or it’s happening in both nipples, it’s unlikely to be a cancer symptom.
3. Multiple lumps
While it’s possible that you have multiple tumors in your breast large enough to be felt, cancer usually appears as a single, palpable lump. If that single lump is cancerous, it’s not unusual for the doctor to find other, smaller areas of cancer in your breast. But the classic breast cancer is a single noticeable lump – not multiples.
4. White/sore bumps on the areola
Your areola, the darker skin surrounding your nipple, is filled with oil glands to keep the nipple soft. These can become blocked – just as oil glands on your nose or chin can become clogged and produce pimples. Try to keep nipples as clean and dry as possible to prevent blockage.
5. A symptom you’ve had for years
There’s a lump in your breast; you’ve had it since you were a teenager. Or a long “divot” stretches from your nipple to the underside of your breast; it appeared when you had your first child 15 years ago, and never disappeared. Breast cancer can be slow-growing. But once it’s large enough to change the shape of your breast, it will grow noticeably over the course of months – not lie dormant and unchanging for years.
6. If you’re a teenager or younger – any symptom
According to the American Cancer Society, the chance of you being diagnosed with breast cancer at age 14 or younger is about one in a million; at age 14-19, about two in a million. It’s possible, but not probable. Our Teen Guide to Breast Development is a great resource for those experiencing the pain and confusion of puberty.
7. A sore/itchy nipple
While a sore and/or itchy nipple can be an early symptom of a rare type of breast cancer, Paget’s disease, it’s more likely a skin or hormonal issue. Nipples are easily irritated by factors as simple as new laundry detergent or shower gel, an ill-fitting bra, or too much swimming in a chlorinated pool. Eliminate any possible environmental factors, and keep your nipple cool and dry, perhaps by wearing a camisole instead of a bra if possible.
8. Breasts that are suddenly larger and feel “full”
You wake up and your breasts feel different: swollen, painful, with an odd feeling of “fullness.” This is almost certainly hormonal. You may be pregnant; or this may simply be a normal part of your menstrual cycle. If you’re not pregnant, the feeling should dissipate within a week or so after the end of your period.
9. A sore armpit lump accompanied by recent illness
Armpit lumps can turn out to be cancer. But more commonly, and especially if they’re painful, an armpit lump is a swollen lymph node. Lymph nodes under our arms help filter out bacteria and other harmful substances in the blood. When you’re ill, it’s not uncommon for an underarm lymph node to swell and become painful as it does its job.
10. A lump that comes and goes
You discover a lump in your breast. Two weeks later, it’s gone. Yet three weeks after that, you feel it again. A typical breast cancer lump is firm, fixed in place, and doesn’t disappear. A lump that comes and goes is much more likely to be a cyst or fibroadenoma, both of which can become more prominent and easily felt at certain points during your menstrual cycle.
Note: This article shouldn’t substitute for medical advice, and it’s never wrong to call the doctor if you are genuinely concerned about any breast issue. When in doubt, check it out by seeking medical help.
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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.
PJ Hamel is senior digital content editor and food writer at King Arthur Flour, and a James Beard award-winning author. A 16-year breast cancer survivor, her passion is helping women through this devastating disease. She manages a large and active online survivor support network based at her local hospital and shares her wisdom and experience with the greater community via HealthCentral.com.