The Breast Cancer Warning Signs All Women Need to Know

It’s not just lumps you should be looking out for.

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Breast cancer is one of the most commonly diagnosed cancers among American women. While that’s a chilling statistic, it’s important to know that thanks to routine breast cancer screening programs—clinical breast exams, mammograms, ultrasounds, and MRIs—most breast cancers are found at an early stage before warning signs appear, and therefore can have better treatment and outcomes.

Still, not all breast cancers are found through routine breast cancer screenings (especially in young women, who are likely not getting regular mammograms), which is why it’s imperative to know your own body and watch for anything out of the norm. “If a woman notices breast changes at all, anything that she’s concerned about, she should first make an appointment with her health care provider to be further evaluated,” says Brenda Panzera, MD, an oncologist at Lenox Hill and Mount Sinai Hospitals in New York City. “There is no concern that is too small that should not be evaluated by their health care provider.”

Warning signs of breast cancer vary from woman to woman, but most women may notice a change in the look or feel of the breast or nipple, or nipple discharge. These changes may include:

A lump, hard knot, or thickening inside the breast or underarm area. In most cases, lumpiness is nothing to worry about. “Many women have what we would consider to be lumpy breast tissue, and not every lump or abnormality that is felt is cancer—actually most commonly it’s not,” says Dr. Panzera.

See a health care provider if you find a new lump, knot, or chord that’s firm, fixed, or feels different from the rest of your breast or from your other breast. “They can be any size—they can be as small as a pea or as large as an orange—so it’s not so much the size that we’re concerned about, it’s really more about how it feels,” says Dr. Panzera.

A change in the general appearance of the breast, such as an increase or decrease in size, or a change in symmetry. Breasts can often change in size with changes in hormones (pregnancy, menstrual cycle, etc.), and not everyone has perfectly symmetrical breasts. “If there’s a significant change where one notices that one breast is much larger than the other breast, or had not previously been larger and you’re now seeing even a subtle change, it warrants investigation,” says Dr. Panzera.

Color, texture, or temperature changes to the skin of the breast. “Generally breast tissue should have the same appearance as the rest of the skin,” says Dr. Panzera. However, if your skin shows any of these changes, call a doctor:

  • Breast skin or tissue that seems swollen, full, or warm.
  • Breast skin that is red or darkened.
  • Breast skin that is retracting or dimpling. “[If breast skin has] the appearance of an orange, these are things that we like to look into,” says Dr. Panzera.

Nipple discharge or inversion. A leaking nipple may be alarming, but it’s rarely a sign of cancer. Signs that your nipple discharge could be serious are:

  • If it comes out without squeezing the nipple
  • If it only occurs in one breast
  • If it is bloody

An inverted nipple (where the nipple pulls in instead of out) is another potential breast cancer sign that you may want to make an appointment with your doc.

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