October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. But as we move forward into winter and put up our pink ribbons, it’s important to remain vigilant about the disease.
Breast cancer is more common than you might think. And while we’ve been taught from a young age to look for lumps as a telltale sign of cancer, that’s not the only possible symptom.
In fact, there are several other symptoms of breast cancer you might miss by focusing too hard on rogue lumps and bumps.
Breaking Down The Basics
To better identify abnormal symptoms, it’s important to know basic breast anatomy. Sure, you’ve become familiar with your gals on a skin-deep level.
But did you know breasts also contain three types of tissue as well as lobes, lobules, and ducts? Each part is susceptible to showing symptoms of cancer.
Once you get a handle on the gals, you’re ready to start examining. Here are the top signs of possible breast cancer that aren’t lumps.
1. Unusual Breast Or Nipple Pain
Some breast pain is normal. Menstruation, menopause, and breastfeeding can all cause breast tenderness or discomfort. It’s common and harmless, albeit annoying.
According to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, some medications can also cause breast pain. These include Aldomet, Aldactone, and certain diuretics, among others.
Still, some forms of breast cancer do cause abnormal breast pain. Inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) is a rare and aggressive form of the disease.
Because of its quick onset, IBC can be mistaken for a breast infection. Either way, it’s best to check with your doctor.
2. Changes In Skin’s Appearance
Changes in the breast skin’s appearance is a more common symptom of cancer. These changes can manifest in several ways.
If the skin becomes red, scaly, or thick, you should follow up with a doctor right away. The skin might change texture, becoming pitted, edged, or bumpy—almost like an orange peel.
If you’re not sure if your skin changes are problematic, use these reference photos from Healthline to compare. Generally, any skin irritation or dimpling of the breast should be addressed by a doctor right away.
3. Changes In Nipple’s Appearance
Similarly, changes in the nipple’s appearance can also be a sign of breast cancer. Cancer affects the cells behind the nipple, causing outward changes.
One common change is nipple inverting. This is when the nipples appear to revert inward into the breast.
Some women naturally have inverted nipples. Some research suggests up to nine in ten women have at least one inverted nipple. This does not mean they are born with or have breast cancer.
But if your nipples have recently started to change orientation, size, or color, you should consult your doctor.
4. Unusual Nipple Discharge
According to the Mayo Clinic, nipple discharge is a normal part of breast function. Pregnancy, breastfeeding, menstruation, and fibrocystic changes can all cause discharge.
A papilloma might also be the culprit. This is a benign tumor that often causes bloody discharge. A doctor will be able to determine whether it’s a papilloma or cancer with a mammogram.
The Mayo Clinic also suggests checking for cancer if only one breast is affected by the discharge. Spontaneous and persistent discharge is also an indicator of a malignant condition.
5. Swollen Lymph Nodes
Because this symptom isn’t directly located in the breasts, it can be especially easy to miss. But don’t forget there’s more to your breasts than just an areola and nipple.
Breasts also contain lymph vessels that connect to lymph nodes. Lymph nodes are small clumps of immune cells that act as filters for the lymphatic system.
If breast cancer spreads, the lymph nodes in the underarm are the first place it’s likely to go. Therefore, swollen lymph nodes under the arm or around the collarbone could indicate cancer.
When To See A Doctor
According to the CDC, breast cancer is the second most common cancer among women in the United States. Breast cancer disproportionately affects Black women compared to white.
The latest breast cancer report is from 2018. It states that 254,744 new cases of female breast cancer were reported among women, and 42,465 women died of the disease.
Some states have higher incidence rates than others. Hawaii, Montana, and Rhode Island are among some of the highest.
All that’s to say—it’s not as far away as one might think. If you’ve recently experienced any of the above symptoms, it’s worth a call to your doctor to double-check.
While some physical exams can help locate symptoms, breast cancer is best viewed under the skin. Mammograms, ultrasounds, MRIs, and biopsies all provide a much clearer picture of what’s going on below the surface.
Doctors also suggest that women between 45 and 54 have a yearly breast cancer screening, with or without symptoms. Like pap smears, breast cancer screenings should be a regular part of female healthcare.
This is because when caught early, breast cancer is easy to treat. Don’t wait until it’s too late, and remember—breast cancer can affect anyone at any time, not just during October.