How Do I know it is Breast Cancer?

16 May, 2024

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"It is stage 1 breast cancer," the doctor said. Shalini’s heart sank. She said, "But doctor, I self-examine my breasts every month, and I did not feel any lumps. There was occasional pain, but I did not think it was serious." Her doctor later made Shalini understand that the presence of a lump is not the only symptom of breast cancer, and various other signs are associated with breast cancer that women need to be mindful of.

Just like Shalini, many among us are unaware of the different symptoms of breast cancer. There is a popular assumption that breast cancer always causes a lump. This may also make them forgo annual mammography because they believe they will be able to feel any changes that might be alarming.

Breast cancer symptoms may vary from one woman to another. Again, there are some common symptoms and some uncommon ones. This article will help you learn how to check your breasts for signs of cancer, the specific changes that you must be mindful of, the symptoms of different types of breast cancer, and answers to some of the burning questions about breast cancer.

How to Check Breasts?

Checking or examining your breasts for signs of cancer is something you should do every month. Below is a step-by-step guide to looking for early signs and symptoms of breast cancer.

1. Preparation

Stand undressed from the waist up in front of a large mirror in a well-lit room. You may lie down or stand straight during your examination. Using shower gel or massage oil can help you glide your hands easily over your breasts and check for any earliest signs of breast cancer.

2. Visual Exam

Step 1: Observe the size and appearance of your breasts. Look for any abnormalities such as rashes, redness, swelling, scaling, dimpling, or changes in color and texture.

Step 2: Check your nipples for sores, peeling of any kind, and any change in direction.

Step 3: A visual inspection should be done once with your arms beside your body, once with both hands on your hips, and once with your hands clasped behind your head.

3. Physical Exam

Step 1: Using the pads of the three middle fingers on your left hand, gently press into the right breast. Using massage oil during the physical examination helps in detecting lumps and other abnormalities easily.

Step 2: Look for lumps and swelling in the entire breast and armpit region.

Step 3: Let the pressure be firm for deeper tissue and gentle for the tissue underneath the skin.

Step 4: Look for nipple discharge by placing your thumb and forefinger on the tissue surrounding the nipple and pulling outward towards the end of the nipple.

Step 5: The same procedure should be repeated for the left breast.

Step 6: Physical inspection of the breast can be done in different patterns: circles, wedges, and up and down patterns.

How Should Your Breast Feel Like?

The look and feel of normal breasts may vary from one individual to another. There could be changes with age, menstrual cycles, pregnancies, and menopause. It is also normal for the breasts to feel lumpy or uneven because of the glandular tissue and fat composition. Also, some women may have a granular or sandy texture, especially on the outer skin. Familiarizing yourself with the normal consistency of your breasts is key to recognizing when something feels different.

When you feel the presence of a new lump, observe changes in the appearance and texture of breast skin and nipples, or have unusual discharge from nipples, you should promptly consult a specialist, as these could be the earliest signs of breast cancer.

Common Symptoms of Breast Cancer

Learning about the earliest signs of breast cancer is crucial, as it will help you receive the necessary medical attention and possibly prevent advanced-stage breast cancer. Having said that, not all individuals may experience symptoms in the early stages, or they may not experience the same earliest signs of breast cancer. Below, we have listed the most commonly and rarely observed early signs and symptoms of breast cancer:

1. A Lump in or Near the Breast or Underarm

One of the first signs of breast cancer is the presence of a lump in the breast or underarms. This lump does not go away. Often one of the breast cancer stage 1 symptoms, these lumps are hard, painless, and have irregular edges. However, they can also be soft, painful, and round, too.

Not all breast lumps are cancerous; nevertheless, when one is found, it is important to get tested.

2. Swelling in the Breast or Underarm

Swelling in the breast is one of early stage symptoms of breast cancer. The swelling may be seen in the entire breast or one part of the breast. It can make the breast feel tight and tender.

It is also important to pay attention to swelling in the region of the underarm and collarbone, as it could be a sign of breast cancer spreading to the nearby lymph nodes.

3. Dimpling or Puckering of Breast Skin

Dimpling, or puckering, refers to the indentation that forms when the arms are raised. It may not be visible when the arms are down. You may use a mirror to check for dimpling.

Dimpling, which is one of the early signs of breast cancer, is more commonly seen in the case of inflammatory breast cancer.

4. Pain and Tenderness due to Lumps

The lump in the breast may also cause pain and tenderness, which is also one of the early breast cancer symptoms. This pain may be steady or may come and go. Any pain that is not associated with menstrual cycles should be evaluated by a specialist.

5. Flat or Indented Area on Your Breast

This is also one of the most important warning signs of breast cancer. This can be felt during self-breast examinations. The indent may be caused by a tumor that cannot be seen or felt.

6. Change in the Breast Skin Color and Texture

Breast cancer can trigger inflammation, which in turn can lead to some changes in the texture of the breast skin. The skin may feel scaly, flaky, and dry.

Discolored skin is another sign that women need to pay attention to. Breast cancer may cause the skin to have red, pink, or brownish discoloration.

In some cases, skin irritations like itching, peeling, and burning sensations could also be associated with breast cancer.

7. Changes in the Nipple

Nipple inversion is another symptom of breast cancer. The nipple may look reversed inward into the breast.

Flaky skin and redness are other changes that women must be mindful of.

The appearance of the nipple can change throughout the menstrual cycle. However, it's crucial to pay attention to any nipple changes and see a doctor when anything alarming is noticed.

8. Nipple Discharge

In some cases, breast cancer is associated with abnormal nipple discharge. The discharge may be of different colors, ranging from milky white to yellow, red, or green, and it may be thick or thin in consistency.

Nipple discharge is common in breast cancers that arise from the ducts.

Nipple discharge is not always a sign of cancer; nevertheless, it should not be ignored.

9. A Marble-Like Area Under Your Skin

Feeling a hardened or marble-like area, simply called a lump, may also indicate breast cancer. Other than breast cancer, fibroadenoma and breast lesions may also lead to lumps. Seeing a specialist will help you get a conclusive diagnosis.

Less Common Symptoms of Breast Cancer

Other signs of breast cancer are less common, and not all patients experience them. These signs may be persistent or may come and go. The following are some of the less common warnings of breast cancer:

1. Breast Pain or Tenderness

Breast cancer does not usually cause pain. However, in some cases, women experience discomfort, pain, and tenderness in the breast. If this pain does not go away, it is important to see a doctor.

2. Warmth in the Skin

Warmness in the skin, although rare, could be one of the most important symptoms of breast cancer in women. It is often seen in women with inflammatory breast cancer. The skin may be unusually warm, and there will be discomfort and tenderness too.

3. Itching Sensation in Nipples

In rare cases, breast cancer can cause a dry and itchy sensation in the nipples. Itching in the nipple can be caused by a variety of factors, not just cancer. However, it should be checked to be safe and certain.

4. Soreness in the Armpit Region

Rarely, individuals may also experience soreness or a tender sensation in the armpit region as one of the clinical signs of breast cancer. If this soreness does not go away or gets worse, it is important to see a doctor.

5. Veiny Appearance of the Breast

A veiny appearance is a sign of blood vessel obstruction, which may be caused by a lump or increased blood flow to the breast, which may be a sign of tumor growth. This is a rare symptom. However, it needs prompt medical attention.

6. Symptoms That Are Not Even Related to Your Breast

If breast cancer has spread to other parts of the body, different symptoms that are not related to the breast are seen. Some of these symptoms include neck pain, back pain, and unexplained weight loss.

Different Types of Breast Cancer and Their Early Symptoms

There are different types of breast cancer, depending on the cell type that they arise from. Each type may have different beginning signs of breast cancer. The following are some of the important early stage breast cancer symptoms, depending on the type:

1. Ductal Carcinoma Symptoms

Ductal carcinoma, the most common type of breast cancer, often presents as a lump in the breast or underarm. Other early ductal carcinoma symptoms may also include a change in the shape or texture of the nipple or breast, including puckering or dimpling of the skin.

2. Invasive Breast Cancer Symptoms

Symptoms of invasive breast cancer often extend beyond the original site, including swelling of the breast or a lump that feels different from surrounding tissue. Patients might also notice redness or pitting of the breast skin, resembling an orange peel.

3. Lobular Carcinoma Symptoms

Lobular carcinoma typically forms in the milk-producing glands. Early signs are often subtle, including a thickening or hardening in one part of the breast, rather than a distinct lump, which may be overlooked.

4. Metastatic Breast Cancer Symptoms

Metastatic breast cancer symptoms depend on where the cancer has spread but can include unexpected weight loss, bone pain, and neurological symptoms like headaches or seizures, indicating advanced disease.

5. Triple-Negative Breast Cancer Symptoms

The triple negative breast cancer symptoms may be similar to those of other breast cancer types. This aggressive cancer often develops rapidly, with symptoms including a noticeable lump in the breast or underarms, changes in the skin over the breast, and sometimes nipple discharge.

Male Breast Cancer Symptoms

While we learned about the different signs and symptoms of breast cancer in women, it is also important to know about the different breast cancer symptoms in men. In most cases, early signs of breast cancer in males could be similar to early signs of breast cancer in females. Men may notice a painless lump or thickening in the breast tissue, changes to the skin covering the breast, such as dimpling, and changes to the nipple, including redness or scaling.

1. Symptoms of Paget’s Disease of the Breast

This rare cancer typically affects the nipple and areola, causing symptoms like redness, scaling, and itching of the nipple, often mistaken for eczema. A lump in the breast might also be present.

2. Inflammatory Breast Cancer Symptoms

Inflammatory breast cancer presents with redness and swelling of the breast, with the affected area feeling warm and appearing as if it's inflamed. The skin may have a thickened, pitted surface.

3. Papillary Carcinoma Symptoms

Papillary carcinoma often presents as a well-defined lump in the breast that can be felt during a physical exam. It is sometimes accompanied by nipple discharge that may be bloody.

4. Angiosarcoma Symptoms

Angiosarcoma of the breast might not cause early symptoms but can quickly lead to a bruised appearance, swelling, and pain as the cancer progresses, with lumps becoming palpable as the disease advances.

What to Do When You Have Breast Cancer Symptoms?

If you are experiencing the above-mentioned symptoms, do not panic. Visit your gynecologist, your primary physician, or the best cancer hospital near you to consult a cancer specialist and explain your concerns. You may be asked to undergo various tests; this is important for an accurate diagnosis.

Today, we have much better infrastructure and medical facilities to manage breast cancer, and a breast cancer diagnosis need not be feared like before.

Also, it is important to note that these symptoms can be caused by other, less severe breast conditions. In other words, not always do these symptoms point towards breast cancer. Nevertheless, it is important to be aware of the symptoms and promptly report them to your doctor, as it helps in early detection and timely treatment.


Breast cancer is treated best when it is detected early, and for it to be detected early, women need to be aware of its early symptoms. Depending on the type of breast cancer, the symptoms may vary. Anything that is not normal with your breasts should be taken seriously and checked by a doctor.

When detected in the early stages, breast cancer patients will have added advantages like breast conservation, a reduced need for complex treatments, and, most importantly, a better quality of life after the treatment. Thus, women must become familiar with the various signs and symptoms of breast cancer and seek medical attention when they notice anything concerning.

Frequently Asked Questions

  1. What does breast cancer feel like in the beginning?

In the initial stages, breast cancer may not cause any symptoms. However, the most common first sign is a painless lump in the breast or underarm. Other early stage symptoms of breast cancer can include changes in the size or shape of the breast, skin dimpling, nipple inversion, or redness. An important point to note here is that various benign conditions of the breast also cause these symptoms, and proper evaluation is necessary for a conclusive diagnosis.

  1. How long can breast cancer go undetected?

Breast cancer can go undetected for several years; this is especially true for slow-growing breast cancer types. The period it remains unnoticed largely depends on the breast cancer type, its location, and the frequency of breast examinations performed by the individual or healthcare professionals. Regular breast cancer screening can support early detection and timely treatment.

  1. How does breast cancer impact a person?

Breast cancer can have a profound impact on a person, affecting their physical health, emotional well-being, and quality of life. Physically, it can lead to symptoms like fatigue, pain, and changes in body image after surgery. Emotionally, it can cause stress, anxiety, and depression. The impact varies widely among individuals and depends on the stage of cancer and the treatment received. Seeking the right care from the right specialist is the key to reducing the burden of breast cancer.

  1. Do you feel unwell with early breast cancer?

Many people with early breast cancer hardly feel unwell. In some cases, early stage breast cancer does not cause pain or other noticeable symptoms. That's why regular screenings and being aware of changes in your breasts are crucial for early detection. In the advanced stage, breast cancer patients may experience noticeable lumps, weight loss, and fatigue.

  1. What is the difference between muscle pain and breast cancer?

Muscle pain in the chest area is usually associated with physical activity, strain, or injury. It is often felt as soreness or a sharp pain, and it worsens with movement.

Pain caused by breast cancer, on the other hand, could be dull and persistent. The pain is felt in the tissue rather than in the muscles. Also, along with breast cancer pain, patients experience other symptoms like changes in the appearance and texture of the breast skin, nipple discharge, presence of a lump, etc.

  1. Where does your back hurt with breast cancer?

Back pain associated with breast cancer is usually felt in the upper back, between the shoulder blades, or in the lower back. If the cancer has spread to the bones, one may experience pain in the spine or the ribs. Having persistent back pain with no apparent cause prompts a medical evaluation.

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