7 Sneaky Breast Cancer Symptoms That Are Easy to Miss

by Christa Sgobba Health Writer

Here’s a little secret breast cancer doesn’t want you to know: It can be beat.

The key, of course, is early detection. Women who spot breast cancer before it’s spread have a 99 percent five-year survival rate, according to the National Cancer Institute’s Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results Program (SEER).

The challenge: The earliest symptoms of breast cancer are especially skilled at hiding in plain sight, often causing no pain or physical changes.

“This is why mammograms are so important,” says Julie Nangia, M.D., director of the Breast Cancer Prevention and High Risk Clinic at Baylor College of Medicine. “They can detect cancer when it’s in the milk ducts—before it’s big enough to cause a physical change.”

But annual mammograms aren’t enough. You also need to be proactive and vigilant before and between screenings.

When most people think of breast cancer, they think of a hard lump in the breast. And it’s true, this is the most common early symptom of breast cancer. In fact, according to a 2017 study published in Cancer Epidemiology, 83 percent of women with breast cancer have at least one lump.

The lumps are generally hard, feel fixed to the area around it, and are usually not painful, though some lumps can present differently, says Rachel Brem, M.D., director of the Breast Cancer Program at GW Cancer Center in Washington, D.C.

Beyond lumps, however, there are other, more unexpected signs of breast cancer. If you spot any of the following, talk to your doctor.

Sneaky Symptom #1: Large Lump in the Armpit

A lump under the armpit can represent a swelling in your lymph node, the glands that help your body fight infection, says Dr. Brem.

You surely have had swollen lymph nodes before, but they often grow larger when they swell in response to cancer, Dr. Brem explains.

Sneaky Symptom #2: Dimpling of the Skin

Any new dimpling on your breast should be cause for concern, says Dr. Nangia. Look for an indentation of the skin, similar in size and shape to a dimple on your cheek.

“This could signal that a tumor is pulling from underneath the skin,” she explains.

Sneaky Symptom #3: An Orange-Peel Appearance

Doctors call this “peau d’orange,” meaning the skin of an orange. It can be a sign of inflammatory breast cancer, where the breast swells and the skin takes on almost a pitted appearance—like an orange peel.

“This happens when breast cancer cells invade the skin of the breast,” says Dr. Nangia.

Sneaky Symptom #4: Swelling or Redness

Swelling or redness is often mistaken for a breast infection, but it can also be a sign of inflammatory breast cancer, says Adam Brufsky, M.D., Ph.D., co-director of the Comprehensive Breast Cancer Center at the University of Pittsburgh.

To meet the clinical definition of inflammatory breast cancer, you must have redness that covers more than one-third of the breast, a feeling of warmth, and swelling, says Dr. Nangia.

Sneaky Symptom #5: Inverted Nipple

After a breast lump, nipple abnormalities are the second most common presenting symptom of breast cancer, according to the 2017 study.

Be wary of an inverted nipple, says Dr. Nangia—that is, one that has always pointed outward and then suddenly changes to point inward. Likewise, if a nipple suddenly changes direction, see a doctor.

Illustration of nipple discharge
National Breast Cancer Foundation, Inc.

Sneaky Symptom #6: Nipple Discharge

Discharge from one of your nipples, especially if it’s bloody, could be an early symptom of breast cancer, says Dr. Brufksy.

Discharge is commonly caused by a non-cancerous micropapilloma—a wart-like lump in the milk duct. But it’s always best to have it checked by your doctor, says Dr. Nangia.

Sneaky Symptom #7: Itchy Nipple

Itchiness, flaking, or crusting on the nipple (or near it) can be a sign of Paget’s disease, a rare form of breast cancer, says Dr. Brufsky.

Paget’s disease can often be mistaken as a simple skin irritation. According to the National Cancer Institute, most women with Paget’s disease also have at least one tumor inside the affected breast.

Christa Sgobba
Meet Our Writer
Christa Sgobba

Christa is a writer, editor, research, and content creator with 10 years of experience producing informative, service-heavy health, fitness, and nutrition content. On the print side, her work has appeared in Men’s Health, Weight Watchers, and Glamour. On the digital side, she’s written for MensHealth.com, Runner’s World, Bicycling, and Silver Sneakers.