Breast Cancer Symptoms in Women: Early Signs & Self-Examination Techniques

Overview of Breast Cancer

Breast cancer is the second most common cancer in women after skin cancer. According to research, nearly one in eight women will develop invasive breast cancer in their lifetime. Therefore, it’s important to be familiar with the twelve breast cancer symptoms and signs to look out for when performing your scheduled self-breast exam. The purpose of this article is to provide an overview of breast cancer, as well as discussing the key signs and symptoms to look out for.

Types of Breast Cancer

Breast cancer can be classified by the type of cell that it starts in and whether or not it is invasive. Invasive cancers have spread from the place where they started into surrounding tissue, while non-invasive cancers are still within the milk ducts or lobules of the breast. The different types of breast cancer include:

  1. Ductal Carcinoma in Situ (DCIS): This form of cancer is present solely within a milk duct of the breast. It remains confined to a specific area and has not spread to other tissues. DCIS is often referred to as pre-cancer because without treatment, it may develop into an invasive form of cancer.

  2. Lobular Carcinoma in Situ (LCIS): LCIS occurs in the lobules and usually does not become invasive; however, its presence suggests that a woman is more likely to develop an invasive form of breast cancer at some point in her life.

  3. Invasive Ductal Carcinoma: This cancer may begin developing inside a milk duct, but eventually breaks through the walls of the duct and invades other tissues outside. Ductal carcinomas make up around 80% of all breast cancer diagnoses.

  4. Invasive Lobular Carcinoma: This type of cancer originates from within the lobule and spreads outward through surrounding tissue, including muscle tissue on occasion. Lobular carcinomas make up approximately 10%–15% percent of all newly diagnosed cases worldwide according to estimates from World Health Organization data.

Risk Factors

Knowing the risk factors associated with breast cancer can help determine your chances of developing the disease. While some risk factors, such as being a woman or having a family history of breast cancer, cannot be controlled, there are several risk factors you can modify and reduce. These include:

  • Certain gene mutations may increase your chance of developing breast cancer, such as BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutations.
  • If you’ve had previous types of breast cancer, it increases your chance of having another.
  • Cancers that run in families may be inherited from either parent.
  • Alcohol consumption and smoking may increase your risk for developing some forms of the disease.
  • Using hormone replacement therapy may increase your chance of getting certain cancers; both early menstruation and late menopause are also associated with increased risks.

Understanding these risks is key to helping you make smart decisions about screening, prevention, and detection procedures that best benefit you and your overall health. Remember regular self-breast exams are an important way to detect any changes or abnormalities early which can lead to improved outcomes if a diagnosis occurs.

Breast Cancer Symptoms and Signs

When performing a breast self-exam, you should look for any area of thickening or lump in your breast. The American Cancer Society advises using the pads of your fingers when examining your breasts, noting the texture and size of each area before moving to the next. Any lump that you find should be examined by your doctor as soon as possible. Additionally, if there’s an area that feels thicker than the surrounding tissue or a definite border around it, it should prompt a visit to your doctor. Keep in mind that not all lumps are cancerous. Many times cysts – fluid-filled pockets – can form in breasts and cause lumps, which usually aren’t cancerous and typically don’t cause pain. Fibrocystic changes or fibroadenomas are noncancerous conditions that involve tissue accumulation—usually caused by hormone changes—and can also cause benign lumps. It’s important to remember that any lump should be investigated by your doctor to determine if it’s cancerous or not so treatment can be started as soon as possible if needed.

Paying attention to any changes in your breasts and being aware of the signs and symptoms of breast cancer is key for early detection. Swelling of the breast is often the first visible sign of breast cancer. It can occur in one or both breasts and may be accompanied by a feeling of tightness or firmness. If there is swelling that persists after a self-breast exam or appears suddenly, it could be an indicator of something more serious than just fluid buildup under the skin, and should be evaluated by a medical professional.

Changes in the skin of the breast can be an important symptom of breast cancer. While many changes are not caused by cancer, any change in the shape or size of your breast should be checked by a doctor. These changes may include:

  • Dimpling of the skin
  • Redness or thickening in areas that don’t usually have texture or color changes (other than during your menstrual cycle)
  • A new lump, dent, or area that is warm to the touch
  • Pain or tenderness anywhere on the breast

Nipple discharge is one of the most common signs of breast cancer and can impact one or both nipples. In women with benign (non-cancerous) conditions, the discharge tends to be milky or white and can occur spontaneously. However, if it is greenish-yellow or bloody in color, then it may signify a malignant (cancerous) tumor in the milk ducts. It’s important to note that nearly 80% of nipple discharges are caused by benign conditions in pregnant and breastfeeding women. Other symptoms associated with nipple discharge include tenderness, skin irritation, redness around the area, pain when touching your nipples, and inversion (turning inward). If you experience any of these symptoms along with your discharge, talk to your doctor as soon as possible for a professional evaluation and further testing.

Nipple retraction, also known as nipple inversion, refers to a state when the nipples become inverted and point inward. This is an uncommon condition only seen in a small percentage of women. However, it can be a sign of serious breast problems. It is possible for nipples to be naturally inverted, although there is a greater chance it indicates hormonal changes or another kind of pathology such as Paget disease or breast cancer invasion of the ducts behind the nipple, internally. The difference between normal and inverted nipples can be determined during a physical examination and can help indicate what type of underlying cause may exist. In order to properly determine if an abnormality exists in the nipple tissue itself, an ultrasound must be performed which allows for visual inspection and evaluation inside the tissue itself. If further testing is required, your physician may ask you to undergo mammography imaging studies or possible tumor biopsies to make an accurate diagnosis for any potential malignancies.

One of the more unique signs and symptoms of breast cancer is dimpling of the skin. It typically appears as an indentation on the surface of the breast, which may look like an orange peel or the pitting on a peach. This symptom can also affect the nipples, with them taking on a wrinkled or pitted appearance. In some cases, indentations may appear that are not normally seen in women without breast cancer. Furthermore, when these indentations occur along with other symptoms, it could indicate that there is cause for concern. When examining yourself for signs and symptoms of breast cancer, look for any lumps or changes in texture that appear abnormal compared to your other breast(s). If you notice any dimpling skin on your breasts and/or nipples, contact your physician to get it checked out as soon as possible.

Redness or scaliness of the skin on the breast can be an early sign of breast cancer. While these symptoms are not always indicative of a cancerous condition, if you notice that your usually smooth and even-toned skin has become cracked, dry, itchy, or flaky due to redness or scaliness, it is important to have this checked out by a doctor as soon as possible. Be sure to watch for any changes and keep track of them. It is always better to be safe than sorry. To check for changes in the texture and/or color in your breast skin, do a thorough self-exam at least once a month while standing in front of a mirror with your arms raised above your head. Examine each breast carefully, observing any changes you may detect. Also do this check when lying down, as this can help reveal other signs that would not show up when standing. In addition to examining your breasts in both the standing and lying positions, feel each one lightly with circular motions using the pads of your fingers. Note any lumps or areas larger than the size of a pea that you may come across during this process. Because early detection is key in identifying some forms of breast cancer symptoms and signs before they worsen or spread further into other organs and tissues, ensure that you have regular health exams with your doctor at least every two years (or more frequently if recommended). Further tests such as mammography may need to be implemented based on each person’s individual risk factors for developing cancerous conditions, since not all abnormalities detected at earlier stages contain cancerous cells.

Itchy or flaky skin on the nipple and surrounding area can be a sign of breast cancer. It may also be caused by another underlying skin condition. Other signs along with itchy skin include redness, burning, soreness, or breakage of the nipple skin. While this symptom is commonly related to mastitis and other noncancerous conditions of the breasts like eczema, it’s important to consider all the factors so you can quickly seek out advice from a medical professional if necessary. An examination and biopsy would be needed to determine whether or not it is cancerous.

Pain in the breast or nipple can be a potential symptom of breast cancer. Pain may present itself as a general discomfort or sharp, pinching sensation in any part of the breast or nipple. The pain may occur regularly or it may come and go. It’s also possible for a person to experience no pain at all. Other potential signs that could accompany this sensation include redness, swelling, itching, and skin changes. In rare cases, discharges from the nipples can indicate breast cancer. It is important to note that these issues can also be caused by non-cancerous conditions such as inflammation of the breasts or an infection in the ducts (mastitis). If you experience any of these symptoms, you should schedule an appointment with your doctor for further evaluation.

Self-Breast Exam

Performing a self-breast exam is an important part of early cancer detection. The procedure is simple and something every woman should perform regularly. Initial steps should be taken to become familiar with the feel, look, and texture of your breasts. This can be done while showering or during a self-breast exam in the privacy of your own home. Here is a step-by-step guide to performing a self-breast exam:

  1. Begin by standing in front of a mirror, completely undressed above the waist, so that you can see and feel your full breasts and nipples for changes or abnormalities in size or shape.
  2. With both arms raised above your head, take a few breaths and note any changes in your breasts and nipples as they rise with each breath you take.
  3. While still looking at yourself in the mirror, place both hands on your hips with fingers facing outward, brought toward, but not touching the breast tissue, to be sure that all areas are being felt as you move around each breast area individually checking for any lumps or sore spots that may not have been felt during regular activities such as dressing or bathing.
  4. Move up and down, working outwards towards armpits, with small circles all over each breast area, checking for any lumps or sore spots that may not have been felt before while dressing or bathing.
  5. To check the underarm region, hold your arm upright so fingers can reach along the rib cage up towards the armpit region, properly feeling up higher underarm areas on both sides, making sure to check the underarm area while pressing firmly (but gently).
  6. Laying down on a comfortable surface, palpitate the chest wall/breast tissue by pressing firmly (just short of the pain level) downwards. Note any evidence of lumps that have recently shown up very late at night after showering while lying down, catching them easier than before. Also, move around the whole breast, circling back to the starting point, and gently touch all around again.
  7. Continue purposefully examining the area, asking questions to decide what further steps need to be taken.

Tips for Performing an Effective Self-Breast Exam:

  • Always check your breasts at the same time each month, either once a month or twice a year depending on your doctor’s recommendation.
  • Choose the same time each month and be sure to look for any changes that may have occurred since the last exam.
  • Start by looking at the size and shape of both breasts – pay particular attention to any asymmetries or irregular shapes that may be present.
  • Position yourself in front of an overhead mirror with both arms raised above your head, palms together, and then roll chest muscles with your fingers to feel for lumps or thickening on either side of the breast and underarm area, using small overlapping circles with varying pressure but always avoiding painful pressure.
  • Feel beneath each breast area with fingertips pressed firmly down against ribs, starting at the top of the rib cage and moving downward towards the bottom of the breast, passing about an inch away from the nipples during this step (avoid squeezing nipples). It helps to use different pressures – gentle, medium firm, and then deep firm pressure when palpating the chest muscles around each side of breasts before moving downward into the armpit area.
  • You should also use different motions when breaking tissue apart such as circular, vertical line patterns, or horizontal line patterns while still avoiding squeezing nipples directly during this step as well.
  • Don’t forget to feel up along the collarbone/sides up towards the neck since this area is often overlooked during self-breast exams!

An informed woman is in the best position to recognize any unusual changes in her breasts long before they can be detected in a medical setting. Taking the time to perform regular self-breast exams and understand these 12 different warning signs of breast cancer can give you an important advantage in the early detection and effective treatment of this potentially devastating disease. If you do spot any of these warning signs or have any concerns or questions before or after performing your regular self-breast exam, contact your doctor as soon as possible for further evaluation and care. Remember that early detection and timely medical intervention remain our best weapons against breast cancer, so don’t delay—your future health depends on it!


In conclusion, breast cancer is a common and potentially serious disease that affects both men and women. Understanding the different types, risk factors, and symptoms of breast cancer is crucial for early detection and treatment. By performing regular self-breast exams and being aware of any changes in your breasts, you can take proactive steps towards your own health and well-being. If you notice any unusual symptoms or have concerns, don’t hesitate to seek medical advice from a healthcare professional. Remember, early detection is key in improving outcomes and ultimately saving lives.

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