Skin changes, discharge and swelling are all worth noting.
When people think about breast cancer detection, they usually think about finding a lump in one of their breasts. While it is a possible sign, it isn’t the only one — and it may not be the first thing you notice.
“There are a few early symptoms of breast cancer to watch out for,” says Alanna Gretschel, DO, a Geisinger general surgeon specializing in breast surgery. “Regular checkups, mammograms and being familiar with the look and feel of your breasts can all help you catch it early while it's easier to treat.”
Getting to know your breasts
Your breasts change over time, whether from monthly hormone fluctuations or age. Experts previously recommended monthly self-exams to check for early signs of breast cancer, but newer research suggests focusing on overall breast self-awareness.
“Knowing what’s normal for your breasts is the most important thing,” explains Dr. Gretschel. “Getting to know your body makes it easier to notice any changes over time.”
This could be as simple as paying attention while getting dressed for the day or performing a more structured self-exam — whatever helps you build up your self-awareness.
Here’s how to do a breast self-exam:
- Choose a time when your breasts are the least tender or swollen like the week after your period ends.
- Start by looking in a mirror with your arms at your sides. Do you notice any visual changes in your breasts’ appearance? What about when you raise your arms above your head?
- Lie down and place one hand behind your head. Use your other hand to feel your opposite breast.
- Apply different levels of pressure with the pads of your fingers, moving in a clockwise or up and down pattern. Make sure to examine your entire breast area — including your armpit.
- Gently squeeze your nipple to check for discharge.
- Repeat this process on the other side.
To make it easier for your fingers to slide around your skin, you can also examine your breasts while standing in the shower.
Early symptoms of breast cancer
If you do notice any changes in your breasts, it doesn’t automatically mean it’s cancer. It’s always best to talk to your doctor, especially if you spot any of the following signs:
1. Visible changes in the nipple or skin
After puberty, your nipples remain fairly consistent in shape, size and color. Generally, there shouldn’t be any sudden changes with your nipples or skin. Let your doctor know if you notice:
- A red, itchy or scaly rash
- Inversion or sucking-in of the nipple
- Dimpling, puckering or other changes in the skin on or around the nipple
“As breast cancer progresses, it grows and pushes other things out of the way,” Dr. Gretschel says. “This can cause changes in the breast, skin and nipple as the breast’s internal structure changes.”
It’s completely normal for your breasts to become tender or swell during menstruation. But if you notice tenderness and swelling unrelated to your period or that lasts longer than a week, let your doctor know.
“If you have persistent swelling in your breasts or discoloration, it’s a good idea to see your doctor,” says Dr. Gretschel. “Swelling is your body’s version of an alarm. In the case of breast cancer, it could be irritating or blocking normal breast function and cause swelling. Lumps by themselves are usually not painful, but they can sometimes cause swelling that is.”
3. Nipple discharge
Discharge from the nipple, while not always a cause for immediate concern, should be checked out by a doctor, especially if it’s a new symptom for you.
Is the discharge bloody, clear or milky? Does it happen even without the nipple being squeezed? Is it only coming from one breast?
“Discharge can be caused by a few different things, and it isn’t an extremely common symptom of breast cancer,” says Dr. Gretschel. “But it’s still a good idea to get it looked at.”
What to do if you spot a possible sign of breast cancer
Don’t panic. If you notice a change in your breast, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have breast cancer. “Some of these changes may be a result of benign, or non-cancerous, breast conditions,” explains Dr. Gretschel.
Still, if you notice any change at all, especially one occurring in only one breast, it’s a good idea to reach out to your primary care provider or gynecologist. They can help you pinpoint the cause and come up with a plan to keep your breasts healthy.