6 Signs of Breast Cancer That Women Overlook

Uncommon symptoms may hint at serious disease

Nurse evaluating mammogram results
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Most breast cancer awareness campaigns advise women to examine their breast for lumps. As a result, people generally understand the importance of routine self-examinations and mammograms.

What many do not realize is that lumps are not the only signs of breast cancer. As a malignancy develops in breast tissue, it doesn't always consolidate into a mass. It can sometimes effect changes that are far more subtle but harder to detect.

For this reason, if you ever experience a change in your breasts that doesn't seem right to you, have it checked out. It may not be anything, but you'll never know for certain until you have it looked at.

6 Uncommon Signs of Breast Cancer

To this end, here are six uncommon signs of breast cancer that you may not know about:

Unusually Warm Skin

Cancer is associated with inflammation, the body's response to any condition it considers abnormal. Inflammation typically manifests with increases in body temperature. However, unlike a fever, which involves the entire body, inflammation due to breast cancer tends to be localized and constrained to a single breast.

Inflammatory breast cancer is a rare and aggressive form of cancer in which malignant cells block the lymph vessels of the skin. IBC is different in that it usually does not cause a lump and is frequently missed on a mammogram.

Inverted Nipples

Nipple retraction (also known as nipple inversion or invaginated nipple) is the term used to describe a nipple that has turned inward or is flattened. While the condition may be congenital or caused by inflammation, it may also be a sign of cancer.

There are two types of cancer that affect the ducts of a nipple known as known as ductal carcinoma in situ and invasive ductal carcinoma. While both are similar, ductal carcinoma in situ remains confined to the nipple, while invasive ductal carcinoma can spread to other parts of the body. The same symptoms may also be seen with IBC.

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

Itchy Breasts

While an itch every now and then is normal, if there is a persistent itchiness of the breast, you may want to have it checked out. There is a chance, however slight, that it may be an early sign of IBC.

The symptom commonly occurs before the malignancy begins to change the texture and appearance of the skin. The subtle cellular changes, involving the breakdown of fat cells, can cause localized nerve endings to fire abnormally, manifesting with symptoms of itchiness.

Mastitis, a non-cancerous inflammation of the breast, and Paget's disease of the nipple, a rare form of cancer, are both known to cause itchiness.

Dimpled Skin

As IBC progresses, it will typically cause changes to the texture of the breast. One of the tell-tale signs is when the skin takes on a dimpled appearance, resembling that of an orange peel.

It is somewhat similar in appearance to an allergic skin reaction, where the inflammation can cause the pores to look more pronounced. Oftentimes, the skin will feel thicker and warm to the touch.

Dimpling is caused by the death of fatty tissue as the cancer starts to spread. This occurs nearer to the surface of the skin, creating an orange-peel-like texture, often with scaling.

Red Spots or Blotches

There are many different 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 more diffuse, similar in appearance to a bruise, or manifest with a generalized redness of the entire breast. Swelling is also common.

Changes in Breast Size

Breast size can change for any number of reasons, from pregnancy to the luteal/follicular phases of menstruation. However, the one characteristic that should always raise a red flag is when the change is asymmetrical (affecting one side rather than both).

While mastitis might very well explain this, any sudden and noticeable change to one breast should always warrant concern. Oftentimes, the breast will feel harder or noticeably heavier than the other. In other cases, the breast may suddenly decrease in size. Neither of the changes should be considered normal.

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.

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Article Sources
  • Cowell, C.; Weigelt, B.; Sakr, R. et al. "Progression from ductal carcinoma in situ to invasive breast cancer: Revisited." Mol Oncology. 2013: 7(5):856-69. DOI: 10.1016/j.molonc.2013.07.005.
  • Robertson, F.; Bondy, M.; Yang, W. et al. "Inflammatory Breast Cancer: The Disease, the Biology, the Treatment." CA: Can J Clin. 2010; 60(6):351-375. DOI: 10.3322/caac.20082.