Know Your Body, Stay Alert For These Breast Cancer Symptoms

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Breast pain, breast swelling, nipple discharge. Could these symptoms be breast cancer?

Our bodies communicate symptoms for a wide range of ailments. When it comes to breast cancer, knowing and listening to your body can mean catching breast cancer early, when it is easier to treat.

But how do you know whether a change in your body is breast cancer or something less serious?

“It is important to report any change to your breast or surrounding tissue to your health care provider so they can investigate potential causes,” advises general surgeon Heather Adkins, MD, an MD Anderson Cancer Network®-certified physician. “If a symptom does turn out to be an indicator of breast cancer, dismissing it could potentially result in a less favorable outcome.”

Knowing your body well and what’s normal for your breasts is the first step in recognizing breast cancer symptoms. Dr. Adkins stresses, “Take the time to regularly look for changes in how your breasts look and feel.” Mammograms are critical for early detection of breast cancer. However, a physical exam is a powerful additional tool to detect abnormalities that might be missed on routine imaging.

Stay alert for these breast cancer symptoms:

  • Lump in your breast or underarm (armpit). This is the most common symptom of breast cancer. Lumps can be hard, soft, painless, or painful. While many are benign (not cancer), caused by such conditions as fibrocystic breast disease (“lumpy breasts”) or cysts (small fluid-filled sacs), a medical diagnosis is the only way to be certain.
  • Swelling of breast area, collarbone, or armpit. Certain types of breast cancer can cause swelling, as can breast cancer that has spread to lymph nodes. Inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) is a rare but often aggressive cancer that can cause swollen, red, and very warm breasts.
  • Skin dimpling. Breast skin that feels thicker, sometimes resembling an orange peel, may turn out to be only an infection (mastitis). But if it is IBC, early diagnosis is critical since this cancer can progress quickly.
  • Nipple retraction (turning inward). Nipple retraction can occur with aging or due to non-cancerous conditions, but this symptom is still an important one to report.
  • Nipple or breast redness, dryness, flaking, or thickening. Do not assume these symptoms are caused by an infection and simply wait things out. Get them evaluated.
  • Nipple discharge (other than breast milk). Often caused by injury or infection, if the fluid is bloody, it could be breast cancer.
  • Breast or nipple pain. While most breast cancers do not cause pain, severe or persistent breast pain can be cause for concern.

Remember, don’t let the fear of a cancer diagnosis keep you from reporting anything unusual to your health care team. Early detection continues to be the best offense for fighting breast cancer.

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