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Breast cancer symptoms

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This page tells you about the symptoms of breast cancer. There are sections about

 

A quick guide to what's on this page

Breast lumps in general

The first symptom of breast cancer for many women is a lump in their breast. But 9 out of 10 breast lumps (90%) are benign. That means they are not cancers. But if you spot a lump, see your doctor straight away.

What to look out for

Changes that could be due to a breast cancer are

  • A lump or thickening in an area of the breast
  • A change in the size or shape of a breast
  • Dimpling of the skin
  • A change in the shape of your nipple, particularly if it turns in, sinks into the breast or becomes irregular in shape
  • A blood stained discharge from the nipple
  • A rash on a nipple or surrounding area
  • A swelling or lump in your armpit

These signs don't necessarily mean cancer. But if any of these things happen to you, you need to get it checked out.

In a rare type of breast cancer called inflammatory breast cancer, the whole breast can look red and inflamed and can be very sore. Another rare type of breast cancer shows up as a rash on and around the nipple. It is called Paget's disease. It looks a bit like eczema and is sometimes mistaken for that at first.

 

CR PDF Icon You can view and print the quick guides for all the pages in the About breast cancer section.

 

 

Breast lumps in general

The first symptom of breast cancer for many women is a lump in their breast. But many women have breast lumps and 9 out of 10 (90%) are benign. That means they are not cancers. 

Most benign breast lumps are

  • Areas of breast cell changes, causing lumpiness that is more obvious just before a period, particularly in women over 35
  • Cysts – sacs of fluid in the breast tissue, which are quite common
  • Fibroadenoma – a collection of fibrous glandular tissue (these are more common in younger women)
 

What to look out for

Changes that could be due to a breast cancer are

  • A lump or thickening in an area of the breast
  • A change in the size or shape of a breast
  • Dimpling of the skin
  • A change in the shape of your nipple, particularly if it turns in, sinks into the breast, or has an irregular shape
  • A blood stained discharge from the nipple
  • A rash on a nipple or surrounding area
  • A swelling or lump in your armpit

Like breast lumps, these signs don't necessarily mean cancer. Inverted nipples, blood stained nipple discharge or a rash can all be due to other medical conditions. But if you have any changes to what is normal for you, you should see your GP. It is most likely to be a benign condition that can easily be treated and seeing the GP will put your mind at rest. If it does turn out to be cancer, you give yourself the best chance of successful treatment by going to the doctor early on.

 

If you find a lump

See your doctor straight away. If you notice anything unusual about your breast, have it examined. Even though most breast lumps are benign, they need to be checked to rule out cancer. Our page about breast awareness shows how to learn what is normal for you.

Your doctor will examine you and if necessary will send you to a specialist breast clinic for further checks. At the clinic, they will be able to see on your mammogram or ultrasound if the lump is a fluid filled cyst or a solid lump.

If it is a cyst, the doctor or nurse may get rid of it by draining the fluid out through a fine needle. If it is a solid lump, they will stick a very fine needle into it and take a tissue sample to test for cancer cells.

Some women prefer to have benign lumps removed to stop them from worrying that it may be a cancer. They may be concerned that they will confuse the benign lumps with any other lumps they may get in the future. But if you and your doctor are confident that the lump is benign, you don't have to have it removed if you don't want to. Benign lumps don't turn into cancer.

If your lump is a cancer, the earlier you have breast cancer treatment, the better your chance of cure.

 

Breast pain

Breast pain is very common and is not usually due to cancer. Many healthy women find that their breasts feel lumpy and tender before a period. And some benign breast lumps are painful. Many women get pain in their breasts for a while, which goes after a time. There may be no obvious reason for the pain, even with lots of tests.

Most breast pain is not caused by cancer, but some breast cancers do cause pain. So if you are worried see your GP, particularly if your breast is also inflamed.

 

Other symptoms

A rare type of breast cancer called inflammatory breast cancer can have different symptoms. The whole breast can look red and inflamed and can be very sore. The breast may feel hard. The skin sometimes looks like orange peel because the pores stand out in the inflamed area.

Another rare type of breast cancer shows up as a rash on and around the nipple. It is called Paget's disease. The red, scaly rash can be itchy. It looks a bit like eczema and is sometimes mistaken for that at first.

Again, if you have any changes to your breasts that are not normal for you, do go to see your GP. The earlier a breast cancer is diagnosed, the easier it is to successfully treat it.

 

More information about breast cancer symptoms

The earlier breast cancer is picked up, the easier it is to treat it and the more likely the treatment is to be successful. So it is important that you go to your GP as soon as possible if you notice worrying symptoms.

There is information about breast awareness, how to check your breasts (self examination), and what to look for, on our page about finding breast cancer early

Look at the screening for breast cancer section for information about having a mammogram and who is screened for breast cancer. We also have more detailed information about the findings of the breast screening review.

If you would like more information about anything to do with the symptoms of breast cancer, you can contact our cancer information nurses. They would be happy to help.

You can also contact one of the breast cancer organisations.

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While you're reading this we're making real progress in our fight to beat all cancers, including breast cancer - the chances of survival are improving all the time.

 

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Updated: 5 February 2014