Breast cancer symptoms vary from one person to the next. Knowing what your breasts normally look and feel like may help you recognize possible signs and symptoms.
What does breast cancer feel like? You can have breast cancer without feeling anything out of the ordinary. But, if you find an area of thickening breast tissue, a lump in your breast (usually painless, but not always) or an enlarged underarm lymph node, see your physician.
What does breast cancer look like? You may notice a change in the shape or size of your breast. You could have an area of skin that dimples or a nipple that leaks fluid.
Often, there are no early warning signs of breast cancer. Even if you develop a lump, it may be too small to feel. That’s why breast cancer screening, typically using mammography, is so important. Early signs and symptoms of breast cancer that some women and men might experience include:
- New lump in the breast or armpit, with or without pain. Lumps are often hard but can be soft as well. (Not all lumps are breast cancer. Some lumps may be noncancerous changes or benign, fluid-filled cysts, but they should be checked by your physician.)
- Change in breast size or shape. Look for swelling, thickening, or shrinkage, especially in one breast.
- Dimpling, pitting, or redness. Breast skin may take on the appearance of an orange peel.
- Peeling, flaking, or scaling breast skin.
- Red, thick, or scaly nipple.
- Breast, nipple, or armpit pain.
- Inverted nipple. Look for a nipple that turns inward or flattens.
- Nipple discharge. It may be clear or bloody.
- Redness or unusual warmth. This can be a sign of inflammatory breast cancer, a rare and aggressive form of the disease.
- Swollen lymph nodes under the arm or around the collarbone, which could be a sign that breast cancer has spread.
Breast cancer screening and diagnosis
With breast cancer, early detection is key. The earlier the disease is diagnosed the less it has progressed, and the better the outcome with treatment.
Screening for breast cancer
A screening mammogram (a type of breast X-ray) can identify the presence of cancer, often before symptoms arise. Women at high risk for breast cancer may also be screened with other imaging tests, like a breast MRI.
Medical organizations and breast cancer advocacy groups urge women to undergo routine screening to find and treat breast cancer early. But experts do not agree on exactly when to begin screening or how frequently women should be tested.
The National Comprehensive Cancer Network (an alliance of cancer centers) recommends annual screening beginning at age 40.
The ACS says women ages 40 to 44 should have the option to begin screening every year. It recommends annual screening for women ages 45 to 54. At 55, a woman can decide to continue annual screening or go for her mammogram every other year for as long as she is healthy and has 10 more years of life to live.
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force advises women 40 to 49 to talk to their health care provider about when to start screening and how often to be screened. For women 50 to 74, it recommends a mammogram every two years.
Women at high risk of developing breast cancer should be screened earlier and more often. The ACS recommends annual mammograms and breast MRIs starting at age 30 for women with a higher-than-average risk of developing breast cancer, including those with a known breast cancer gene mutation or a first-degree relative with an inherited breast cancer gene mutation.
Since men have less breast tissue and less breast cancer, they are not routinely screened for the disease. If there is a strong family history of breast cancer or a known breast cancer gene mutation in the family, a man might consider having genetic testing to see if he has a mutation that increases his risk for male breast cancer.
Men who are at high risk for breast cancer should talk to their health care provider about having their breasts examined during routine checkups and doing breast self-exams.
Male or female, it is helpful to know what your breasts normally look and feel like so that you can report any changes to your doctor. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends “breast self-awareness,” meaning knowing what’s normal for your own breasts and paying attention to any changes you may feel.
Regular breast self-exams are no longer recommended as a routine screening method for women because there isn’t sufficient evidence that they offer any early detection or survival benefits.
But should women still have their breasts examined by a doctor every year? Some medical groups see no clear benefit of a clinical breast exam, while others continue to recommend one every year as part of a routine checkup.