6 Early Signs of Breast Cancer

October is around the corner, and while it brings full-blown autumn with it, there is another thing that comes along – Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

As soon as October arrives, the cancer industry gears into an overdrive. From urging women to go for a mammogram to providing preventive measures, no stones are left unturned to nip cancer in the bud. Such awareness tactics have worked; the result is a 39% decrease in deaths due to breast cancer in the period, i.e. between 1989 and 2015.

But unfortunately, to researcher’s dismay, some women still think that the first (and at times, the only) symptom of breast cancer is lumps. Obviously, this isn’t the case. Also, there have been instances when mammograms have failed to detect a breast cancer. To avoid such an uncertain result, it is better to rely on your instincts as well. In simple words, to detect breast cancer early, women should keep some more common symptoms in mind. Here are a few of them:

A non-healing sore on or around the nipple

A probable sign of Paget’s disease, any skin color/texture change or a scaly, red or/and flaky nipple with fluid discharge is something to keep an eye out for. Though not very invasive, Paget’s disease is a rare form of breast cancer. Also, it is most commonly diagnosed in patients who are between 70 and 80 years old.

Nipple and the surrounding area have changed

Otherwise attributable to genetic malformation or alteration, any changes in the nipple might be a sign of breast cancer

. For example, nipple retraction, when the nipple is pulled in and points inwards, is a sign of cancer in many cases. If there was no retraction before but is now, it is time to consult a doctor.

Swelling of the breast or some parts of it

As lumps aren’t the only sign of breast cancer, their absence doesn’t mean that cancer isn’t there. In some cases, no lumps are felt but there is a distinct swelling of the breast or some parts of it which are a bit painful to touch. If such a pain persists, do consider booking an appointment with your doctor.

Redness, scaly-ness, or thickening of the breast skin or nipple

Usually called peau d’orange, which is French for peel of an orange, the medical community uses this term as a simile to the symptoms. Dimpling, thickening or scaliness of the skin around the breast or of the nipple like that of orange rind could be a major, staring-in-the-mirror symptom of inflammatory breast cancer (IBC). IBC is a rare but extremely aggressive carcinoma which may not get detected in mammograms and might not involve any lumps. Also, if the breast skin changes color, like changing into pink or red hues, it is a major cause of concern. Such symptoms surface when the cancer cells start blocking lymph vessels in the skin.

More signs of IBC:

  • One breast appears or is felt to be larger or heavier than the other
  • More than usual warmth in the breast
  • Itching, tenderness or pain in the breast

As IBC is highly aggressive and spreads quickly, the patients will experience common characteristics like rashes, frequent shooting pain in the breast, and thickening of the skin or nipple. Sometimes the color changes are limited to the breast, midriff, upper abdomen or back. Also, in the same context, the patient might experience either only a couple of hue changes or a gradual change into all the 4 skin colours.

The cause for concern is amplified if the skin colour is naturally darker or if the person is obese and has large breasts, then it becomes really hard to identify the symptoms. It is also often confused with inflammation of the breast, called mastitis, but the latter is extremely rare if the person isn’t breastfeeding.

The only saving grace is that IBC consists of only 1-3 percent of all mammary cancer cases. However, no matter how rare, it is fatal. The symptoms might accelerate on a day to day basis. Some patients can visibly experience the changes overnight. More often than not, the changes don’t even take 6 months to completely develop. More than 80% of the patients suffering from IBC are initially thought to be suffering from mastitis inflammation or an infection and are given antibiotics, further delaying the correct diagnosis.

Swollen Axillary lymph nodes

Axillary lymph nodes are a group of 20-30 large lymph nodes located in the tissue around the armpit. At times, breast cancer spreads to the lymph nodes without any apparent signs on or around breasts. Sometimes, breast cancer patients are diagnosed when they come in to get checked a lump under their arm. This lump is later discovered as breast cancer. Sometimes, if the cancer is at an advanced stage, it also spreads to the lymph nodes present in the lower part of the neck.

As cancer cells are very invasive, when given a leeway into the lymphatic system, they start targeting distant organs.

Blood from nipple

While a common symptom, a bloody discharge from the nipples may be difficult to spot. However, if you happen to notice any blood stains in your bra cups, report immediately to a doctor.

However, if a clear or milky discharge is found during pre-puberty stages, do not panic; it may just be a normal physiological change.

Most importantly, do not forget to seek advice from your doctor.

Instead of dealing with cancer when it has progressed, it is always better to be on a lookout so that it can be treated without delay. The symptoms discussed above may be some common indicators of breast cancer, but they are rarely given any media attention. While most campaigns insist on doing a self breast exam, it is important to remember that not all breast lumps are a sign of cancer. Thus, being attentive and self-aware is the key to catch cancer while it isn’t that invasive. Also, as October approaches, don’t forget to book your mammogram screening!