Signs of Breast Cancer


Every year, approximately 230,000 women learn that they have breast cancer. This makes it the most commonly diagnosed cancer in women. According to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, it accounts for 27 percent of all types of cancer diagnosed in any given year. To further put it into perspective, breast cancer impacts one of every eight women in the United States. This includes women of all ages.

Knowing that breast cancer is common doesn’t make it any easier when you or someone you love receives a diagnosis. Breast cancer is highly treatable when detected in the early stages. While some changes in the breast tissue and structure only appear when you have a mammogram, you can often find other changes yourself.

How to Conduct a Self-Examination of Your Breasts

Women should conduct a monthly self-examination of their breasts. The National Breast Cancer Foundation reports that 40 percent of newly diagnosed cases of breast cancer happened because a woman felt a lump in her breast during a self-examination and reported it to her doctor.

To start your exam, stand in front of a mirror and look at your breasts. Your shoulders should remain straight while you keep your arms positioned on your hips. The first thing you should notice is whether your breasts appear the same color, shape, and size as usual. Their shape should be even and you shouldn’t see any type of swelling or distortion. Please schedule an appointment with your primary care provider to discuss your need for a mammogram if you notice any of these changes:

  • The skin on your breast, nipple, or areola appears red, scaly, or swollen. It may also have pitting or ridges that remind you of the appearance of an orange.
  • A change in the size or appearance of the breast not due to any known causes.
  • One or both of your nipples have turned inward.
  • One or both of your breasts suddenly appear smaller. This is especially concerning when one is a dramatically different size than the other.
  • Breast swelling, especially if it’s only on one side.

For the next step, raise your arms and look for the same types of changes. If you spot any, make note of their location and inform your primary care provider right away. While still standing in front of the mirror, check both breasts to see if you spot any type of unusual discharge coming out of them. The discharge could be blood or a fluid that appears milky, watery, or yellow. You should have any discharge of milk when not breastfeeding checked by a provider, although this is typically not an indication of cancer.

To continue your breast self-examination, lie down on a bed or couch and bring your left hand to your right breast. Using the finger pads of your ring, middle, and pointer fingers, press down on your breast while taking care to keep your fingers together. Begin moving your fingers in a circular motion and cover the entire surface area of each breast with this motion. Select a pattern of movement to ensure you cover the entire breast, such as side to side or up and down.

As you complete this portion of your self-exam, be certain that you feel for all tissue in the back and front of your breasts. You can use medium pressure to feel the tissue and skin just below the surface and firm pressure for deeper tissues. Some specific things to look for while you have the opposite hand on each breast include:

  • Thickening on or near the breast, including under your arm
  • Tenderness of one or both nipples
  • A change in the way the texture of skin appears on or around your breasts
  • Any new lumps in your breast

It’s important to note that not every lump in your breast means that you have cancer. However, your provider should investigate new lumps to either confirm or rule it out.

For the last step, feel each breast with the opposite hand while you are standing up or sitting down. It can be easier to do this while you’re in the shower because your skin is already slippery and wet. Use the same hand motions that we described above to finish your exam.

Breast Cancer Can Spread to Other Areas Before Detected

Although a lump or mass in the breast is the most common way that women learn they have breast cancer, not everyone with breast cancer develops one. Some people experience significant pain before they can see or feel anything. For others, cancer spreads from the breast tissue to the lymph nodes located under the arms or collarbone before it becomes obvious in the breast itself. For this reason, we recommend reporting any instance of swollen lymph nodes to your primary care provider at WMHS right away.

Lastly, remember that breast cancer can also affect men. Approximately one percent of people diagnosed with breast cancer each year are male. Men who experience any of these symptoms should also seek immediate medical attention.

Please note, the information provided throughout this site is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. All content, including text, graphics, images, and video, on or available through this website is for general information purposes only. If you are experiencing relating symptoms, please visit your doctor or call 9-1-1 in an emergency.