6 Uncommon Signs of Breast Cancer

It's easy to overlook many of these indications of disease

Many people think breast lumps are the main signs of breast cancer, but that's not always the case. Breast cancer may not come with any signs and symptoms, especially in its early stages. A lump usually is the first symptom. The most effective ways to keep aware of any changes in your breasts include breast self-examinations and mammograms.

Regular breast self-examinations can detect lumps, and mammograms can detect changes in breast tissue. Even if there's not a lump, your breast self-examinations should include a visual inspection of your breasts and nipples, looking for any changes since the previous month's exam.

If you find a change in your breasts, try not to panic. Breast changes—including lumps—can occur for a variety of reasons and may not always breast cancer. Call your healthcare provider for an examination and to order any tests if necessary.

Read on to find out more about uncommon signs of breast cancer and what to look for.

uncommon signs of breast cancer
 Verywell / Alexandra Gordon

Changes in Breast Size

Breast size can change for any number of reasons, including pregnancy and the menstrual cycle. However, if the change is asymmetrical (affecting one side instead of both), that should raise a red flag.

Sometimes, the enlarged breast can feel harder or noticeably heavier than the other. An even less common symptom is a decrease in breast size on one side. You should not ignore either of these changes.

If a change in breast size is sudden and asymmetrical, have it checked out as soon as possible, and take note of any other symptoms you may have.

Unusually Warm Skin

While cancer isn't usually associated with fevers or symptomatic inflammation, a rare and aggressive type of breast cancer called inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) can cause breast warmth, redness, swelling, itching, and discomfort.

Lymph nodes under the arm and on the same side as the affected breast can become swollen, red, and painful. IBC can even cause a fever. IBC is different from most types of breast cancer in that it usually doesn't cause a lump and may not cause changes that are detectable on a mammogram.

IBC symptoms are similar to those of mastitis, a type of breast infection. Get prompt treatment rule out IBC and to optimize your recovery and prevent complications.

Inverted Nipples

The term "nipple retraction" (also known as "nipple inversion" or "invaginated nipple") describes a nipple that has turned inward or has become flattened. While inverted nipples may be congenital, meaning present at birth, a change in your nipple shape is concerning and may be a sign of breast cancer.

Ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), invasive ductal carcinoma (IDC), IBC, and Paget's disease of the nipple are some breast cancer types that can involve the nipple and areola.

Nipple retraction is concerning if it is sudden and unexplained. Other symptoms may include nipple pain, non-milk discharge, and thickening of the nipple tissue.

Itchy Breasts

While an itch every now and then is normal and can have various causes, including irritation from your bra, persistent breast itchiness is a cause for concern. It may be an early sign of IBC, Paget's disease of the nipple, or another type of breast cancer.

Itchiness, tingling, or other paresthesias can occur as cancer begins to cause the breakdown of fat cells in the breasts. This can cause localized nerve endings to fire abnormally, manifesting symptoms of itchiness.

Dimpled Skin

As breast cancer progresses, breast tissue decreases, which may cause changes to the texture of the breast. This occurs nearer to the skin's surface, creating a dimpled, orange-peel texture, often with scaling.

It looks somewhat similar to an allergic skin reaction, in which the inflammation can cause the pores to look larger and more open. The skin may also be thicker and warm to the touch.

Red Spots or Blotches

There are many causes of a rash, most of which are relatively harmless. When it occurs on the breast and doesn't clear up after a few days to a week, it may be a good idea to have it checked out.

With IBC, a rash is fairly common and may appear as a series of small red or purple spots, not unlike that of an insect bite. In other cases, the discoloration may be widespread or similar to the appearance of a bruise. Also, but rarely, the entire breast may appear red or pinkish.

Summary

While there may not always be early signs of breast cancer, not every symptom of breast cancer is a lump you can feel. What's most important is to notice any changes in your breasts. Changes in breast size, thickening or dimpling of the skin, inverted nipples, warm skin, and blotches can all be lesser-known signs of breast cancer.

If you notice anything out of the ordinary, call your healthcare provider. They can do an exam, look at your breasts, and order any necessary tests that they deem necessary. Even if it's not cancer, it's always better to get checked out, just in case.

A Word From Verywell

Changes in your breasts can occur suddenly or gradually. The key for you to remember is that you shouldn't wait things out. Book an appointment with a healthcare provider for a proper diagnosis.

While these breast changes may be due to another cause, early diagnosis and treatment is the best way to maximize your chances of a good outcome if breast cancer is present.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the survival rate for breast cancer?

    The five-year relative survival rate for breast cancer is 99% for localized cancer that has not spread outside the breast. Breast cancer that has spread to local areas near the original spot has an 86% survival rate. If the cancer spreads to distant areas of the body, the survival rate is 28%.

  • How is breast cancer diagnosed?

    Breast cancer is diagnosed with some combination of a physical examination, mammogram, ultrasound, and biopsy (removing a sample of tissue to be examined in a lab). If these tests show that cancer is present, further tests will be used to determine the type and stage, such as a hormone receptor test and HER2/neu test.

  • Who is most at risk for breast cancer?

    Risk factors for breast cancer include:

    • Age, as most breast cancer is diagnosed in women over 50
    • Genetic mutations, such as the BRCA gene
    • Starting menstruation before age 12 or experiencing menopause after age 55
    • Having dense breasts, which makes mammograms more difficult
    • A family history of ovarian or breast cancer
    • Previous radiation therapy
    • Having ever taken diethylstilbestrol
  • How long can breast cancer go undetected?

    It depends on what kind of breast cancer it is. Inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) often does not cause a lump, so there's nothing to feel. It may also not show up on a mammogram. When it progresses to the point at which it has grown into the skin (stage 3 cancer) and starts to affect the skin's appearance, this is often when it's noticed and diagnosed, if not later.

  • What gets mistaken for breast cancer?

    Conditions that can look like breast cancer include hormonal changes like thickening or lumpiness, fibroids and cysts, fat necrosis, and fibrocystic breast disease.

6 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. Breastcancer.org. Symptoms and diagnosis.

  2. American Cancer Society. Inflammatory breast cancer.

  3. American Cancer Society. Types of breast cancer.

  4. Vallely JJ, Hudson KE, Locke SC, et al. Pruritus in patients with solid tumors: an overlooked supportive care need. Support Care Cancer. 2019;27(10):3897-3904. doI:10.1007/s00520-019-04693-5

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. How is breast cancer diagnosed?

  6. American Cancer Society. Inflammatory breast cancer.

Originally written by Lisa Fayed