Symptoms of Breast Cancer

Symptoms of Early Stage, Advanced Disease, and Recurrence

Mature female doctor explaining breast exam to senior patient
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Mammograms can detect breast cancer before it produces symptoms — still mammograms are not perfect, so it's a good idea to also watch out for breast cancer symptoms.

Breast Cancer Symptoms You Can See or Feel

  • scaly or pitted skin on nipple
  • persistent tenderness of the breast
  • unusual breast pain or discomfort

Some Symptoms of Advanced (Metastatic) Breast Cancer

Stage 4, or metastatic breast cancer is the most advanced stage of this disease. Metastatic breast cancer is defined as having spread beyond the breast and underarm lymph nodes into other parts of the body.

  • drop in appetite 
  • unintentional weight loss 
  • bone pain (bone metastases)
  • shortness of breath (lung metastases)
  • headaches, neurological pain or weakness (could be brain metastases)

Inflammatory Breast Cancer (IBC) – Aggressive and Unusual Symptoms

One type of breast cancer that does not appear in lumps is called inflammatory breast cancer (IBC). This aggressive cancer grows in sheets instead of lumps, and it invades nearby skin, resembling a rash. It will not respond to topical creams or antibiotics, and should be treated very promptly.

Symptoms may include:

  • a sudden increase in mature breast size (as much as a cup size in a few days)
  • itching in the skin of the breast that is continuous and not relieved by pills or creams
  • a change in the breast skin color, resulting in pink, red, or dark-colored areas
  • breast is excessively warm to the touch, or harder or firmer than usual
  • unusual pain, which occurs out of the regular cycle
  • sometimes a change in skin texture, similar to the skin of an orange
  • breast skin ulcers (later stage IBC)

Symptoms of Breast Cancer Recurrence

Recurrence of breast cancer is classified as local, regional, and distant. A distant recurrence is the same as advanced (metastatic) breast cancer. A local recurrence is breast cancer that has returned after treatment, in or close to the original tumor location. Regional recurrence may be in the chest wall muscles, or in lymph nodes located beneath your sternum, just above your collarbones, and around your neck.

Local Recurrence Symptoms:

  • a small lump or rash in the excision scar, on or under the skin

Regional Recurrence Symptoms:

  • swollen lymph node in the same armpit where cancer was previously removed
  • swollen lymph nodes above collarbones or sides of neck

A New Tumor Is Not a Recurrence

If a new tumor appears and has a different pathology than the original breast cancer, it is not considered a recurrence.

It is called a new primary, and can occur in a different area of the breast that was originally affected, or in the opposite breast. A new cancer is diagnosed and treated independently from the original tumor.

What Should I Do?

Doing your monthly breast self-exam (BSE) is a great way to be familiar with your breasts’ texture, cyclical changes, size, and skin condition. A mammogram can detect cancer before you can feel a lump, which is why your annual screening mammogram is so important. Early detection is the best way to protect your health and improve your odds of survival. 

It's very important to see your doctor if you have a question about a change in your breasts, or if you feel a new breast mass or lump. 


American Cancer Society. (2015). Breast Cancer Prevention and Early Detection: Signs and symptoms of breast cancer. Retrieved October 12th 2015. 
National Institutes of Health. Medline Plus. Breast Cancer.Symptoms. Updated: 4/3/2007

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