What Are the Early Signs of Breast Cancer?

Breast cancer means a malignant tumor has developed from uncontrolled, abnormal breast cell growth. Abnormal cells will rapidly divide and accumulate, forming a breast lump or mass. Cancerous growths can spread to other parts of the body if left untreated.

Different types of breast cells can develop into cancer. Most breast cancers will start in the ducts that carry milk (invasive ductal carcinoma) to the nipple or the glands that produce milk (invasive lobular carcinoma). Less common breast cancer types are inflammatory breast cancer and ductal carcinoma in situ.

The earliest signs of breast cancer are breast skin changes, size and shape charges, nipple discharge or other changes, breast lumps, and breast pain.

Person concerned with changes to their breast

stefanamer / Getty Images

It is crucial for people of any sex to pay attention to breast changes to spot differences early. While breast cancer is far more common in females, males can also have breast cancer. It is also important for women to have regular mammograms to catch breast cancer in its earliest stages.

The American Cancer Society estimated that in 2022 there would be 287,850 new cases of invasive breast cancer in women, and 43,250 women would die from breast cancer. They also estimated there would be 2,710 new cases of invasive breast cancer in men and that about 530 men would die from breast cancer.

This article will discuss early signs of breast cancer, including changes to the breast, nipple, or skin, lumps, pain, and more.

Skin Changes

It might be possible to recognize breast cancer based on skin changes that affect the breast. This might include: 

  • Puckering: Breast cancer can cause fibrous tissue in the breast to shorten. When this happens, skin tissue is pulled inward, creating a puckered or dented appearance.
  • Dimpling: Dimpling is a sign of blocked lymph vessels in the breast. These vessels transport fluid and cells. Dimpling can occur in a large area of skin on the breast.
  • Thickening: Thickening of the tissues in and around the breast could mean a lump in the granular lobules or a blockage of the lymph nodes.
  • A dermatitis-like rash or redness on or near the nipple: The skin can be red and itchy, and may flake or be crusty around the nipple. This is a rarer symptom of breast cancer and is often linked to a type of breast cancer called Paget's disease of the breast.
  • Visible veins in the breast: The visibility of veins in the breast could indicate blocked blood vessels. These might result from a lump or increased blood supply to the breast. Increased blood supply can accompany tumor growth.

Breast Self-Exams

A breast self-exam is done at home to look for changes in breast tissue. While it used to be a recommended practice for women, it is now considered optional. But it is recommended that you become familiar with your breasts and report changes to a healthcare provider. A breast self-exam is one way to recognize changes.

The best time to self-examine your breasts is a few days after your period starts. At this time, the breasts are not as tender or lumpy as at other times of the month. People who do not get periods can choose to do the exam at the same time every month.

The first part of the breast self-exam can be done while standing or lying down. It can also be done while you are in the shower. Steps include:

  • Start by placing your right hand behind your head.
  • With the middle fingers of the left hand, gently press down using small motions to examine the right breast. 
  • You should also feel the armpit since breast tissue extends into that area.
  • Gently squeeze the nipple to look for discharge.
  • Repeat the process on the left breast.

Next, stand up and use a mirror to look at your breasts directly. Look for changes in skin texture, note the shape, size, and outline of each breast, and check to see if either nipple is turned inward. Repeat the same steps with your arms raised above your head.

Breast Shape and Size

It is possible to have breast changes at different points in your life—before and after monthly periods, during pregnancy, and after menopause. Even so, you should report any swelling, tenderness, pain, or lumps that seem out of the ordinary for you to a healthcare provider.  

You should also report any changes to your breast's size, outline, or shape, as these might be signs of breast cancer. A healthcare provider can assess any changes and properly diagnose you. 

Breast changes in size and shape to look for include:

  • Unexplained breast swelling, especially in one breast 
  • Unexplained breast shrinkage in one or both breasts 
  • Changes to breast asymmetry (unequal breasts): Breast asymmetry is common, but your healthcare provider needs to know if this change is recent.

Nipple Changes or Discharge

Nipple changes or discharge might be early signs of breast, but not always. 

Nipple changes that could occur in breast cancer might include:

  • A nipple that has turned inward or become inverted
  • Skin changes in the areola or nipple
  • Nipple scaling, redness, or swelling
  • Ridges or pitting on the skin around the nipple and areola 

Any leakage of fluid of the nipple is nipple discharge. Depending on its origin, discharge can be milky, clear, brown, bloody, thick, sticky, thin, or watery. 

Nipple discharge can be a sign of breast cancer, but it can also be caused by many things, including birth control pills, some medications, menstrual fluctuations, and infections.

All nipple discharge, regardless of texture or color, should always be checked by a healthcare provider.

Nipple Discharge in Males

No type of nipple discharge is normal for males. If it occurs, seek immediate medical help.

Lumps

A breast lump or mass is the most common sign of breast cancer, but not all lumps are cancerous. According to the American Cancer Society, painless, hard masses with irregular edges are more likely to be cancer.

Cancerous lumps can also be soft, tender, or painful. The lump location can be on the breast, near a nipple, or in the armpit.

While a breast lump can be a sign of breast cancer, it might also be caused by noncancerous conditions. Even so, it is vital to have any swelling, mass, or breast change examined by a healthcare provider. This way, the source can be determined, and, if necessary, treatment can start.

Pain

Breast or nipple pain is any discomfort or tenderness felt in any part of the breast or the underarm. It can occur for various reasons and is often unrelated to breast cancer.

There are many harmless causes of breast pain and tenderness. Causes might include puberty, menstruation, pregnancy, menopause, fibrocystic breasts, or the use of certain medicines. 

If you experience breast or nipple pain related to cancer, you might also have inflammation of the breast tissue or underarm region, along with other breast cancer symptoms.

Contact a healthcare provider if you have breast pain that includes swelling of all or most of the breast, skin irritation, a lump or mass, nipple discharge other than breast milk, and other symptoms that might be related to breast cancer.  

Breast or nipple pain is rarely a cause for serious concern. One study published in 2017 found that only 6% of women reported breast pain as a primary, early symptom of breast cancer. The study also found that the most frequently reported symptom of breast cancer, at 83%, was a breast lump.

Research also shows that women tend to ignore non-lump symptoms of breast cancer. Be mindful of all signs of breast cancer and report any breast and nipple changes or pain accompanied by swelling or other breast or nipple symptoms to a healthcare provider.

Screening Guidelines

Regular screening is the most effective way to find breast cancer early and when it is easier to treat.

The American Cancer Society recommends that women age 40 to 54 get a yearly mammogram. After age 54, a woman can switch to every other year for as long as she is in good health and is expected to live 10 or more years.

Women are at average risk if they do not have a personal or family history of breast cancer or a genetic mutation (such as the BRCA gene) that could increase their risk for breast cancer.

People who are transgender or intersex should ask a healthcare provider whether they should be screened for breast cancer. Mammograms are generally not done to screen males at average risk for breast cancer.

However, men with a strong family history of breast cancer (parent, sibling, or child) should check with a healthcare provider about genetic testing. BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutations increase a man's risk for breast cancer, high-grade prostate cancer, and pancreatic cancer. Screening may be recommended.

Summary 

Breast cancer refers to a malignant tumor from the uncontrolled growth of abnormal breast cells. These abnormal cells will divide and accumulate, forming a mass or lump. A malignant tumor from breast cancer can spread to other parts of the body if left untreated. 

Breast cancer most commonly affects women, but it can affect people of any sex. The earliest signs of breast cancer include a new lump in the breast or in the armpit, breast thickening or swelling, irritation or dimpling of breast skin, nipple changes or discharge, breast size or shape changes, and, while much rarer, breast or nipple pain.  

Research shows women tend to ignore non-lump symptoms of breast cancer. Be mindful of all signs of breast cancer and report any breast and nipple changes or pain accompanied by swelling or other breast symptoms to a healthcare provider.

A Word From Verywell 

Early detection and aggressive treatment are significant factors in determining the outlook of someone diagnosed with cancer. Breast cancer can be treated and cured during its early stages.

Talk to a healthcare provider about when you should start screening for breast cancer. If you are worried about breast pain or tenderness, contact a healthcare provider. If you find a lump in your breast or under your arm, they need to know immediately, even if you had a recent mammogram with no abnormal findings. 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How long can you have breast cancer without knowing it?

    For many people, breast cancer signs and symptoms will first appear or become noticeable when the cancerous tumor or mass grows large enough to be felt or starts to press against nearby tissue, blood vessels, and nerves.

    This can lead to pain and other symptoms. How quickly this occurs depends on the type of breast cancer, as some types are more aggressive.

    With most cancers, however, each abnormal cell division takes one to two months. By the time a lump is felt, cancer has been in the body for two to five years. Fortunately, preventive screenings can help to detect breast cancer early and when it is easier to treat.

  • What does breast cancer pain feel like?

    Breast pain refers to discomfort, tenderness, or pain in the breast or armpit region. Breast cancer does not always cause pain, but pain might be felt if a tumor has started to press on nearby tissues, blood vessels, or nerves again. 

  • Can mammograms detect breast cancer?

    Yes. A mammogram can check for and find breast cancer long before a person experiences any signs or symptoms of the disease. Mammograms make it possible to detect tumors that cannot be felt and macrocalcifications that indicate abnormal cancer cells.

    Mammograms can also evaluate breast tissue after a lump has been found to offer a more detailed picture and make an accurate diagnosis.

14 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Cancer Society. Types of breast cancer.

  2. American Cancer Society. American Cancer Society recommendations for the early detection of breast cancer.

  3. American Cancer Society. Key statistics for breast cancer in men.

  4. American Cancer Society. Key statistics for breast cancer.

  5. Roche. The symptoms of breast cancer: Eight signs of cancer you might not know about.

  6. National Cancer Institute. Paget's disease of the breast.

  7. MedlinePlus. Breast self-exam.

  8. National Cancer Institute. Breast changes and conditions.

  9. Sood N. Cytological evaluation in males presenting with bloody nipple discharge, with or without breast mass: report of two cases depicting two poles of the disease spectrumDiagn Cytopathol. 2019;47(2):121-126. doi:10.1002/dc.24080

  10. American Cancer Society. Breast cancer signs and symptoms.

  11. National Breast Cancer Foundation, Inc. Breast pain.

  12. Koo MM, von Wagner C, Abel GA, et al. Typical and atypical presenting symptoms of breast cancer and their associations with diagnostic intervals: Evidence from a national audit of cancer diagnosis. Cancer Epidemiol. 2017;48:140-146. doi:10.1016/j.canep.2017.04.010

  13. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Breast cancer in men.

  14. Providence Health & Services. Ask an expert: Breast cancer growth rate.

By Lana Barhum
Lana Barhum has been a freelance medical writer since 2009. She shares advice on living well with chronic disease.