9 Symptoms of Breast Cancer That Aren’t Lumps Every Woman Should Know

While lumps and bumps are among the most common breast cancer symptoms, there are other potential signs that you need to see a doctor, stat.

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1. Dimples on breast

A social media post that went viral featured one woman’s only symptom of breast cancer—a small dimple on the edge of her breast. This is one sign of a tumor that you could overlook in a monthly self exam. “Very subtle dimples underneath that could easily be missed when we’re all rushing round getting ready in a morning,” writes the woman who shared the picture on her Facebook page, Lisa Royle, from Manchester, UK.  Anita Johnson, MD, medical director of breast surgical oncology at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Atlanta, agrees. “Any dimpling or retraction of skin on your breast should be checked by your doctor.”

What dimples on your breast could also mean:  According to The Breast Center of Maple Grove in Minnesota, dimples on your breast may also be caused by fat necrosis, which is the death of fat tissue due to injury and loss of blood supply, or fibrocystic breast changes, which is a benign hormonal thickening of breast tissue that may cause a ropelike texture and could lead to cysts. Though these are both noncancerous, you should still notify your doctor immediately.

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2. Skin irritation on breast

In rare cases skin irritation on your breast can be a symptom of breast cancer. “When breasts have unexplained redness, swelling, skin irritation, itchiness, or rashes that are new or have been there longer than expected, check with your doctor,” says Jessica Shepherd, MD, a gynecologist at Baylor Scott & White Women’s Health Group in Dallas.

What skin irritation on your breast can also mean: Your skin can get irritated for a lot of reasons, including a bra that fits poorly, heat rash or contact dermatitis, among other potential skin issues.

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3. Nipple discharge

Certain types of nipple discharge should be checked by a doctor. “Nipple discharge that is not clear, may have a greenish or yellowish color, or is bloody can also be a symptom of breast cancer,” says Dr. Shepherd. “Especially if the discharge is spontaneous, this can be a cause of concern.”

What nipple discharge could also mean: If you’re breastfeeding or pregnant, nipple discharge is likely nothing to worry about. For other women, however, it may raise alarm bells. According to the Mayo Clinic, potential causes include an abscess, an underactive thyroid, fibrocystic breasts, or a noncancerous issue with your milk ducts, among others.

Nipple discharge can also be caused by a variety of harmless issues, though, such as birth control pills or other medication, too much handling or pressure to the breast, or hormonal changes during menstruation. If you experience unexpected nipple discharge, consult your doctor to get to the bottom of it.

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4. Freckles on areola

Dark marks or unusual freckling on the skin aren’t just a sign that you should see a dermatologist—they could be a sign of a rare and more aggressive form of breast cancer called inflammatory breast cancer, says Dr. Johnson. If you get a freckle that’s soon joined by more, talk to your doctor, she says. “Don’t panic as inflammatory breast cancer is extremely rare.”

What freckles on your areola could also mean: If you suddenly notice dark spots on your breast, it may also be a sign of skin cancer. Consult your doctor or a dermatologist if you’re concerned.

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5. Red spots or bruises on breast

Other signs of inflammatory breast cancer can include red splotches or bruise-like marks on the skin, Dr. Johnson says.  “If you develop these and if they seem to linger longer than two to three weeks, make an appointment to get checked out,” she suggests. But again, keep in mind that this type of cancer is rare.

Two years ago, Jennifer Cordts noticed a mysterious red rash on her breast. Her mammogram or breast x-ray came back showing no evidence of cancer. When the spot didn’t go away even after a course of antibiotics, she got a biopsy that revealed she had inflammatory breast cancer. She shares her rare breast cancer symptom as a warning to others.

What red spots on your breast could also mean: Many types of red splotches on your skin—such as cherry angiomas, a sunburn, insect bites, or an acne flare-up—are completely benign. If the red spots on your breast make you nervous or linger for longer than two weeks, though, follow Dr. Johnson’s advice have your doctor take a look.

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6. Changes in nipple shape, size, or color

Your nipples don’t typically change shape, size, or color unless you’re pregnant. But “if you notice any changes in the appearance of your nipples, you should get screened for breast cancer,” says Dr. Shepherd. “This can include a retraction or inward turning of the nipple.”

Itching and scaling on your nipples may be a sign of Paget’s disease of the breast, which is a rare form of breast cancer, says Dr. Johnson. “It usually affects your nipple and the skin around it (areola),” she says. It can appear as flaky or scaly skin on your nipple. It may also appear as oozing and/or hardened skin on the nipple, areola or both, and may even cause a tingling or burning sensation, she says. There are many non-cancerous reasons for itchy, scaly breasts, but it’s always better to be safe than sorry, she says. “Discuss any concerns with your doctor.”

What changes in nipple size, shape, or color could also mean: Changes to your nipple shape, size or color could be due to a variety of reasons, including eczema, a noncancerous infection, or scar tissue, which may form without cause. See your doctor to learn more, and to seek treatment regardless of the cause.

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7. Change in skin texture on breast

Skin changes on your breast could be a sign that something is amiss. “Breast cancer can sometimes cause a change in the texture of the breast,” Dr. Shepherd says. “Watch for a reddish, pitted surface, similar to the skin of an orange. That happens because the breast tissue is becoming inflamed due to cancer cells blocking the small lymph ducts inside the breast and fluid accumulation.”

What a change in skin texture on your breast could also mean: Most changes to your breast’s skin texture are largely harmless, such as those due to bug bites, allergic reactions, irritants, or infection. They may still cause you discomfort, though. If you feel uncomfortable or worried about a sudden change, talk to your doctor or a dermatologist.

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8. Swelling or tenderness of breast

Breast swelling or tenderness is a common issue for women during certain parts of their menstrual cycle—and can even be a sign of early pregnancy. That’s exactly why women often overlook it as a warning sign of breast cancer. “If one breast seems to be particularly enlarged or swollen, you’ll want to get that checked,” Dr. Shepherd advises. “If a lump is deep under the surface, you may not be able to feel it, but you could experience some swelling.”

You may not notice a lump in your breast, but if you feel one under your armpit, it could be an enlarged lymph node. “This could be a sign of a breast cancer that is starting to spread,” Dr. Johnson says. “When you do your monthly breast self-exam, always check under arms for lymph nodes.”

What swelling or tenderness of your breast could also mean: If your breasts feel tender or swollen, it could be because of hormonal changes, breastfeeding, an injury, an unsupportive bra, medication side effects, or an infection. If the pain or discomfort persists, see a doctor.

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9. Change in breast size or shape

If your breasts change shape suddenly, it could be a sign of cancer and you should schedule a screening with your doctor, says Dr. Johnson. “This can occur in the week before your menses so always wait one week after to see if it goes away on its own,” she says. If it is occurring in both breasts, it is likely not due to breast cancer, she says.

What changes in your breast size or shape could also mean: Weight gain, menstrual cycle changes and pregnancy or breastfeeding can all impact the size and shape of your breasts.

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Medically reviewed by Tia Jackson-Bey, MD, on August 05, 2019

Lisa Milbrand
Lisa Milbrand is a freelance writer specializing in covering food, health, fitness, and other lifestyle topics for The Healthy and other major websites and publications.