What to Know About Breast Cancer Symptoms

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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, such as:

  • Swelling or lump (mass) in the breast or armpit—this is the most classic symptom of breast cancer
  • Swelling in the armpit (lymph nodes)
  • Clear or bloody nipple discharge
  • Pain in the nipple
  • Inverted or retracted nipple
  • Scaly or pitted skin on nipple
  • Persistent tenderness of the breast
  • Unusual breast pain or discomfort

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 to other parts of the body. Symptoms include:

  • 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)

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 invades nearby skin—resembling a rash. It will not respond to topical creams or antibiotics and should be treated very promptly. Symptoms may include:

  • 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
  • Change in 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)

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 involve a small lump or rash in the excision scar on or under the skin. Regional recurrence symptoms include swollen lymph nodes in the same armpit in which cancer was previously removed or swollen lymph nodes above collarbones or sides of the neck.

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.

Taking Action

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. Breast Cancer Prevention and Early Detection: Signs and Symptoms of Breast Cancer. 10/12/2015. 

National Institutes of Health. Medline Plus. Breast Cancer Symptoms. 4/3/2007

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