7 Warning Signs of Breast Cancer

7 Warning Signs of Breast Cancer

November 16, 2012
October is National Breast Cancer Awareness month. With more and more families facing this disease, it's imperative to know the early warning signs of breast cancer and find out what you can do to help prevent the disease.  

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Breast Cancer Symptoms

  1. Breast or chest pain.Breast tumors can take many different forms, such as a single lump, an area of scattered seed-like tumors or an amorphous shape with multiple tentacles extending into the tissue. All of these growths cause different types of pain or discomfort. It is important to keep track of when, where and how often the pain occurs. Tell your doctor, being as specific as possible, if you are experiencing pain under the right or left breast and if this is a new symptom different from any other sensation you've experienced before.

  2. Itchy breasts. This symptom, mostly associated with inflammatory breast cancer, is often not noticed. So many women with breast cancer spend months visiting the dermatologist, only to be sent home with creams and medications for a rash. It is extremely itchy, and it makes you feel like scratching. But, of course, scratching doesn't help. The median age of diagnosis for inflammatory breast cancer is 57 (54 among African-American women), and it's typically more aggressive than other types of breast cancer, with a five-year survival rate of 34 percent. If the breast skin looks odd or feels different, see your doctor right away. If the doctor sends you home with an ointment or prescription, don't hesitate to return if the symptoms don't go away.

  3. Upper back, shoulder and neck pain. Sometimes, breast cancer can be felt in the back or shoulders rather than the chest or breasts. The pain is easily confused with sore muscles. However, the pain doesn't go away with stretching or changing position. Bone pain is a deep ache or throbbing. The first place breast cancer usually spreads is to the spine or ribs, becoming secondary spine cancer. According to one study, the five-year survival rate for breast cancer patients whose cancer has spread to the bone is only 8.3 percent, compared with an overall survival rate of 75 percent. If back pain doesn't go away with rest, stretching or physical therapy, see a doctor.

  4. Changes in breast shape, size or appearance. Your partner may notice this change before you do. Or you may become aware of it as you put on your bra or look at yourself in the mirror. Tissue growth may push out the shape or size of the breast without causing a glaring lump. Be particularly alert if you've been told you have dense breast tissue. Mammograms miss up to 50 percent of tumors in women with dense breasts. Study the shape and size of your breasts in a mirror. If there's a difference in size or shape you haven't ever noticed, tell your doctor.

  5. A change in nipple appearance or sensitivity. One of the most common locations for a breast tumor is just beneath the nipple, which can alter the look and feel of the nipple. You may notice that one of your nipples sticks up less than it used to, or it might have become inverted, flattened or indented. There can also be a decrease in nipple sensitivity, which can come to you or your partner's attention during sex. Finally, there could be discharge when you're not breast feeding, and it could be bloody, milky or watery. The skin of the nipple can become crusty, scaly or inflamed. Many breast cancers start in the milk ducts just under and around the nipple, affecting the nipple's appearance or causing pain or discharge. Because some women have naturally inverted nipples or have discharge during and post-pregnancy, a doctor won't necessarily notice this symptom. Pay close attention to any changes in the nipples and discuss them with your doctor.

  6. Swelling or lump in your armpit.  Any pain in the armpit is a sign to check the area carefully with your fingers. A lump under the armpit is hard and doesn't move when you touch it. It feels like a sore or tender spot under the arm. In some cases, you may experience armpit pain with no lump. In some women, the swelling is more prominent under the arm or under the collarbone. The lymph nodes in your armpit are where breast cancer spreads first, by way of lymphatic fluid that drains from the breast. If breast cancer spreads to the lymph nodes, the five-year survival rate declines to 84 percent, as compared with 98 percent for node-negative breast cancer. Colds, flu and infection can also cause swollen lymph nodes, so if you're sick or have an infection, wait for it to clear up before you worry. If a lump or tender spot in the underarm area persists for a week with no apparent cause, see your doctor. 

  7. Red, swollen breasts. Breast pain or redness can be signs of inflammatory breast cancer. It's like a fever for your breasts. They may feel swollen and sore, or the skin and underlying tissue may feel hot or look red or even purple. Inflammatory breast cancer is the most likely cause of this symptom. But breast tumors can also push on tissues, causing breasts to feel swollen and sore.

Once breast cancer has spread beyond the breast (stage IV), the average survival is less than four years. So it's extremely important to detect breast cancer as early as possible. Call your doctor immediately about any symptom that could be inflammatory breast cancer. If the pain is diagnosed as mastitis and you're prescribed antibiotics, you should feel better within a week to 10 days. If you don't, call your doctor and ask for additional tests.

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