Meredith Singer FNP | HealthGreatness

Breast cancer is a frightening thought for many.  As the most common cancer in American women, it receives a lot of publicity from celebrities, media outlets, and well-known foundations (think Susan G. Komen).  According to the National Breast Cancer Foundation an estimated 1 in 8 women will face a breast cancer diagnosis in their lifetime. It’s no wonder that it’s a hot topic!

Breast cancer can present with a host of different signs and symptoms.  Most people with cancer will only have one or two and many may have symptoms that ultimately lead to a less serious diagnosis.  And some people may not have any warning signs at all!  That is why it is important to not only be on the lookout for warning signs but to trust your gut instinct as well.

The American Cancer Society lists the most common warning signs of breast cancer as:

  • A lump or mass detected on either a breast self-exam or an exam by a healthcare provider.  Breast self-exams should be performed around the same time each month since breasts normally vary throughout the menstrual cycle.  An excellent example of a thorough exam can be found at: http://www.breastcancer.org/symptoms/testing/types/self_exam/bse_steps.
  • Irritation, redness, warmth, thickening or dimpling of the skin on breast or nipple (dimpling, also called peau d’orange, looks like the skin of an orange and is associated with a particularly aggressive form of breast cancer called inflammatory breast cancer).
  • Swelling, particularly when found in only in one breast.
  • Any discharge from the nipple (aside from breast milk).
  • Nipple retraction (when it turns inward) or any other changes in the appearance of the nipple.
  • Pain in the breast or nipple, especially when it is not associated with the menstrual cycle. Although breast pain is more often associated with a benign diagnosis (that also may need treatment), it can be a warning sign of breast cancer.
  • Lump or swelling in underarm area (in the lymph nodes).

Monthly breast self-exams are key in early detection, which usually leads to better outcomes with treatments.  There is no typical breast so it is vital that everyone learns what normal for them.

Women are typically screened by their primary healthcare providers with a clinical breast exam and, if they meet certain criteria, a mammogram.  Since these exams are usually only performed at an annual physical, is important to be familiar with the various warning signs that may appear in the interim.

And although the majority of breast cancer cases are diagnosed in women over 50, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate 11% of all new breast cancer diagnoses occur in women 45 and younger.  Women (and men) of all ages need to be on the lookout of the warning signs of breast cancer.

What’s next?

If any of the warning signs are noticed, your primary care provider will usually perform a clinical breast exam and may order further diagnostic tests, such as a mammogram, ultrasound, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or biopsy.  If breast cancer is confirmed, treatment options will be discussed with an oncologist (cancer specialist).