Worldwide, breast cancer is the second most commonly diagnosed malignant tumor, just behind lung cancer. It is responsible for more than two million cases per year.
When we look only at women, breast cancer is not only the most common type of cancer, but it is also the one that causes the most deaths.
Although regular breast cancer screenings are essential, mammograms are not 100% effective for all breast tumors. There are false negative results.
Although breast tumors generally show no symptoms at an early stage, early detection of the first signs can turn a case of breast cancer into a story with a happy ending.
Therefore, knowing how your breasts normally look and knowing the signs and symptoms of breast cancer play an important role in the early diagnosis and survival of patients with these tumors.
In this article we will briefly explain what are the breast signs and symptoms that a woman should always be aware of.
Lump in breast
A papable lump in the breast is the best known sign of cancer. However, not all lumps are malignant. In fact, the vast majority are not. Approximately 90% of palpable masses in the breasts of women ages 20 to 50 are benign.
Examples of benign breast lumps include
By simply palpating the nodule, a malignant lesion cannot be ruled out. Thus, any new nodule should be evaluated by a gynecologist or mastologist, who are the most qualified professionals to assess the characteristics of breast nodules.
A benign nodule is generally semicircular in shape, with regular edges, elastic in consistency, and can be moved on palpation.
A breast lump caused by cancer generally has the following characteristics:
- Hard and well adhered to the deep planes of the skin.
- Dough with irregular edges and shape.
- Lump that is growing.
- Lump that causes retraction of the skin.
- They may or may not be painful.
It should be noted that even nodules with these characteristics can still be benign. Breast imaging tests such as mammography, ultrasound, or MRI help define the nature of the mass.
Changes in skin texture
Locally invasive breast cancer can cause changes and inflammation in skin cells, leading to changes in its texture.
Examples of changes in skin texture in breast cancer include:
- Flaking of the skin around the nipple and areola, as if the skin is sunburned or extremely dry.
- Thickening of the skin anywhere on the breast.
- Redness of the skin, usually with an orange-peel appearance due to enlarged pores (a sign called Orange peel).
These inflammatory skin changes generally occur in a rare type of breast cancer, called Paget’s disease.
Similar changes can also occur as a result of benign skin conditions, such as mastitis or eczema.
Nipple discharge (outside of the breastfeeding period) can be a sign of breast cancer. 50% of women with invasive papillary carcinoma have breast discharge, usually with a bloody appearance.
Yellowish, greenish, or milky discharge can also be a sign of a breast tumor, although there are several other conditions that can cause a similar change. Some examples:
- Breast infections
- Side effects of birth control pills or other medications.
- Thyroid disease
- Benign breast tumors.
- Ectasia of the mammary duct.
Lymph nodes in the armpit
Lymph nodes are small rounded structures of lymphatic tissue found at specific points in the body. Under normal conditions, the lymph nodes are not usually palpable.
Lymph nodes filter fluids and capture potentially harmful cells and germs, including bacteria, viruses, and cancer cells. When this happens, they become inflamed and enlarged.
When a tumor cell leaves the breast, the first place it travels to is the lymph node region in the armpit next to the affected breast. Therefore, palpable lymph nodes in the armpit region can be a sign of the spread of breast cancer.
Some types of breast tumor can cause asymmetry between the breasts, making it larger, deviating in some part, with visible elevations, ripples, depressions at some points, or persistent changes in the color of the skin in one of the breasts.
Again, it should be noted that not all asymmetric breasts are caused by tumors. In most cases, the cause is benign and is related to trauma, previous medical procedures, such as biopsies or hormonal variations throughout the menstrual cycle.
Nipple retraction or reversal
Breast cancer, especially inflammatory cancer, can cause changes to the nipple and areola, including changes in the size or inversion of the nipple in the breast.
Pain in the breast
Most breast tumors are painless. The exception is Paget’s disease of the breast (inflammatory tumor).
Lumps in the breasts caused by tumors are usually painless.
We talk in detail about the causes of breast pain in the article: BREAST PAIN – Causes, treatment and risk of being cancer.
Symptoms of breast cancer in men
Breast cancer occurs mainly in women, but eventually some men can develop it as well.
Many people don’t know it, but men have breast tissue too, and therefore can develop breast cancer. However, the low production of female hormones keeps breast tissue small and reduces risk.
Symptoms of male breast cancer can be similar to those experienced by women. The most common are:
- Painless lumps in the breast
- Thickening of the breast.
- Changes in the skin of the nipples or breasts, such as ripples, depressions, or redness.
- Discharge from one of the nipples