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It’s a proven fact that the earlier breast cancer is detected the more successful treatment often is. For that reason, awareness campaigns that urge women to do at-home self-exams are a great resource for educating women on how to check for any lumps in their breasts. However, a formal breast self-examination is not necessary. Just paying attention to your breasts when showering is usually good enough.

While a lump may be the most common symptom of breast cancer, it’s not the only one. There are other symptoms that you should be aware of in your vigilance about breast cancer. 

A guidebook called Know the Symptoms, provided by the National Breast Cancer Foundation, offers a helpful summary of changes in how your breasts and nipples look and feel that may indicate breast cancer, including the following:

Changes That You Can See 

Changes in the texture and appearance of the skin on or around the breast or nipple can be concerning. These changes may include:

  • Enlarged pores
  • Raised ridges or pitting
  • Dimpling
  • Redness
  • Scaliness
  • Thickening
  • Unusual swelling or shrinkage
  • Nipple turning inward
  • Nipple discharge—clear, bloody, or milky

Sometimes the pores on the breast skins become enlarged, or there may be raised ridges or pitting on the skin of the breast, somewhat like the appearance and texture of an orange peel. Dimpling that occurs anywhere on the breast should also be examined by your doctor.

Breast cancer can also cause changes and create inflammation in skin cells that can lead to red, swollen, or scaly skin on your breast, nipple, or areola. The skin may become extremely dry or appear as if it’s been sunburned. Similarly, you should consult with your doctor if you notice skin thickening on any part of your breast.  

Keep an eye out for any change in the size or shape of the breast that can’t be explained by your typical menstrual cycle, pregnancy, breastfeeding, or significant recent weight changes. Particularly if any of these changes occur on only one side or in one area of a breast, swelling or shrinkage of the breast should be checked out by your doctor, 

Likewise, while it’s common for women to have one breast that’s slightly larger than the other, if the breasts have only recently become asymmetrical, or more noticeably asymmetrical than they previously were, you should consult with your doctor.

And you should also talk with your doctor if you notice that one of your nipples appears to be turning slightly inward, or if the nipple appears inverted. Plus, any nipple discharge, especially if it’s clear or bloody, should be evaluated.  

Changes That You Can Feel

Although undiagnosed breast cancer is typically painless, changes in skin cells that cause inflammation can sometimes cause breast symptoms including:

  • Pain or discomfort
  • Tenderness
  • Itching
  • Burning
  • Swelling in armpit or near the collarbone

Breast pain or discomfort without any other symptoms is rarely related to breast cancer. Some women who have experienced breast cancer related pain have described a tender, burning, or itchy sensation. Itchiness may be accompanied by scaliness, redness, or thickening of the skin.

Finally, because breast cancer can affect nearby lymph nodes and inhibit the flow of lymph fluid, you should pay extra attention to any swelling in your armpit and/or near your collarbone. Swollen lymph nodes may feel like a small nodule, and may or may not be tender to the touch.

Keep in mind that the presence of any of the above symptoms does not automatically mean that you have breast cancer by any means. Normal aging and changes in hormone levels will lead to breast changes throughout your lifetime. 

Plus, there are many other conditions that can potentially cause breast changes that may involve some of the symptoms listed above, including dermatitis, eczema, infections, cysts, and fibrocystic changes. However, it’s wise to see your doctor for a thorough evaluation and accurate diagnosis to understand what’s really going on.

What You Can Do

The most important action you can take is to check your breasts regularly and be familiar with how they typically look and feel, including any usual changes before, during, and after menstruation. Develop a solid understanding of what’s normal for you and what’s not. 

If you do notice a change that isn’t normal for you, make an appointment to have it checked out by your doctor. If it is indeed a symptom of breast cancer, the sooner you have it evaluated further and properly diagnosed, the higher your chances are of treating it successfully. And if it isn’t a symptom of breast cancer, you’ll have the reassurance that you have nothing to worry about and that you’re being proactive about your health.

Finally, please remember that in most cases breast cancer doesn’t cause any symptoms. Mammograms continue to be hands-down the best method for early detection of breast cancer, so be sure to schedule regular screenings according to your age or as your doctor advises. 

Screening mammography, ultrasound, and MRI techniques have dramatically increased the number of breast cancers detected. As a result, many cases of breast cancer are being caught at earlier stages, which results in improved survival rates. 

The single best thing you can do is stay on top of your regularly scheduled screening mammograms, and then follow your doctor’s advice if more diagnostic tests are warranted. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that just because you don’t feel a lump, there’s no way you could have breast cancer.

If you detect changes in your breast, or if you’d like to discuss the most successful surgical treatments for breast cancer, consult with Dr. Aaron G. Margulies. Dr. Margulies is committed to serving breast cancer patients through his solo practice in Breast Surgical Oncology and General Surgery, with offices at Tennova Turkey Creek Medical Center in West Knoxville, at Tennova North Knoxville Medical Center in Powell, at Jefferson Memorial Hospital, and in Newport. His extensive research and expertise have distinguished him as a leader in the field. To learn more about Dr. Margulies’ compassionate surgical care approach, visit www.aaronmd.com or call (865) 692-1610.