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.
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.”
Your skin can get irritated for a lot of reasons, including a bra that fits poorly, heat rash, contact dermatitis, or other skin issues, but in rare cases it 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.
If you’re breastfeeding or pregnant, breast discharge is likely nothing to worry about. For other women, however, certain types of 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.”
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.”
Red spots or bruises
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. Many types of red splotches on your skin, like cherry angiomas, are completely benign.
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.
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 or crusty, oozing 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.”
Change in skin texture
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.”
Swelling or tenderness
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.” A lymph check is one of the three exams you should be doing, but probably aren’t.
Change in breast size or shape
Weight gain, menstrual cycle changes, and pregnancy or breastfeeding can all impact the size and shape of your breasts. But if your breasts change shape independent of these other factors—and if it occurs 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. These 50 everyday habits can decrease your risk of breast cancer.
- Facebook: Lisa Royle, May 11, 2015.
- Jessica Shepherd, MD, assistant professor of Clinical Obstetrics and Gynecology; director of Minimally Invasive Gynecology at the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Chicago.
- Anita Johnson, MD, medical director of breast surgical oncology at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America, Atlanta.