Each year, some 230,000 new cases of breast cancer are diagnosed in American women, and about one in eight American women will develop invasive breast cancer at some point. Breast cancer represents the second-most common cancer in women after skin cancer, and it’s the second-leading cause of death in women behind lung cancer, according to The American Cancer Society. Given these alarming numbers, it’s vital for all women to be on the lookout for breast cancer symptoms. Inform your physician about any abnormalities you notice in your breasts, and discuss periodic screening tests with your doctor. In doing so, you may improve your chances of catching breast cancer early on, when the odds of successful treatment are greater.
Breast Cancer Symptoms
The most common symptom of breast cancer is a hard lump or mass felt in the breast. The lump usually is not movable and may or may not cause pain. Any lumps felt under the arm may be cancer that has spread from breast tissue to the lymph glands under your arm.
Other potential breast cancer symptoms include the following:
- Breast or nipple pain
- Abnormal nipple discharge
- Breast swelling
- An inverted nipple
- Irritation, dimpling, redness, or thickening of the breast skin or nipple
Breast Cancer Symptoms: Early Detection
Research has found that performing periodic breast self-examinations does not lead to improvements in breast cancer survival. As such, medical associations generally do not support breast self-exams as a screening method for breast cancer. Nevertheless, some women find them beneficial, and experts advise women to understand how their breasts usually look and feel, and to inform their physicians immediately if they notice any potential breast cancer symptoms.
The cornerstone of breast cancer screening and early detection is the mammogram, but recommendations regarding when to begin screening mammography, and for how long, vary. For instance:
- The National Comprehensive Cancer Network recommends that women who are at average risk of breast cancer undergo yearly mammograms starting at age 40 and continuing as long as they are healthy.
- The American Cancer Society endorses annual screening mammography for women ages 45 to 54 and then screening every two years thereafter in healthy women. The organization notes that women should have the option to begin screening at age 40 and continue with annual mammograms after age 54.
- The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends mammography screening every two years and only for women ages 50 to 74. The task force advises women in their 40s to make their own decision about breast cancer screening after weighing the pros and cons with their doctors.
When you undergo mammography, ask your doctor if the test shows dense breast tissue. Women with high breast density are significantly more likely to develop breast cancer, and higher breast density may limit the effectiveness of breast cancer screening. Consequently, women with dense breasts may require other testing in addition to a mammogram, such as 3-D mammography, whole-breast ultrasound, or magnetic resonance imaging.
Breast Cancer Testing: Other Options
If cancer is found, further testing will be done to study the cancer cells and predict how quickly the cancer is likely to grow, the risk that it will spread throughout the body, and the chances that it will recur.
One test measures estrogen and progesterone receptors in cancerous tissue—about two-thirds of breast cancers contain receptors for these female hormones. When these hormone receptors are present, especially in high numbers, breast cancer can be stimulated to grow when exposed to estrogen or progesterone. Another test checks for a protein known as HER2/neu. About 20 percent of breast cancers have elevated levels of this protein, which promotes tumor growth.
The results of these tests help determine whether breast cancer is hormone receptor-positive or negative, HER2/neu-positive or negative, or triple negative (no positives for estrogen, progesterone or HER2/neu). This information can guide your physician in making treatment recommendations.
For related reading, visit these posts:
- For Most Breast Cancers, Preventive Double Mastectomy Is Unnecessary
- 5 Breast Cancer Prevention Tips That Could Save Your Life
- Is There an Alternative to Mammogram Screening?
Originally posted in April 2016 and updated.