An estimated 13% of women in the US will develop invasive breast cancer in their lifetime. Others will also develop non-invasive breast cancer, which is less common.
Either way, breast cancer is the most common form of cancer in women in the US and worldwide.
The good news is that many cases of breast cancer are fully treatable so long as caught early. That’s why you’d want to learn more about the early warning signs of breast cancer. This way, you’d know what exactly to look for and when to visit a doctor.
To that end, we compiled this guide listing the earliest signs and symptoms of breast cancer. Read on to discover what they are and what you should do upon their discovery.
1. You Are at a High Risk of Developing Breast Cancer
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There are at least eight unmodifiable factors that can put you at a higher risk of breast cancer. These include age, genetic mutations, family history, or having high estrogen levels. You may also have an elevated risk if you have dense breasts or if you’ve had another type of cancer before.
If you meet any of these risk criteria, it’s best to speak to an oncologist. An oncologist is a doctor specializing in diagnosing and treating cancers. They have the knowledge and skills that may help lower your risks of getting breast cancer.
For example, some doctors may prescribe nonsteroidal aromatase inhibitors. These are drugs often used to treat breast cancer, but they may also help prevent it in high-risk patients. Your doctor may suggest buying Arimidex (anastrozole), Femara (letrozole), or Rivizor (vorozole).
If you drink alcohol, your doctor will likely recommend reducing your intake. The same goes if your body weight is over normal. These are breast cancer risk factors that you can fortunately modify.
2. Lumps That Don’t Go Away
Breast cysts, milk cysts, lipomas, and papilloma can cause lumps to form in the breast. About 80% of such lumps that get biopsied are benign or non-cancerous. Most of these benign growths are soft and often move around when you press them.
Hormonal changes, such as during menstruation, can also cause lumps to form. However, these bulges usually go away a few days after the end of the period.
By contrast, firm or hard lumps that don’t disappear are early signs of breast cancer. Many cancerous formations also feel immovable, as if they got glued in that position. Some lumps that grow within the breast area don’t cause any pain, but others may feel tender or even sore.
Regardless of the lump’s size or characteristics, it’s best you get in touch with a doctor as soon as possible. Even if they’re not cancerous, these lumps can still cause painful changes to your breast.
3. Swollen Areas in the Armpit or Collarbone
Lymph nodes are crucial parts of the immune system, as they contain immune cells. These small, bean-like structures act like filters that screen harmful substances. They then attack and destroy germs or substances that can make you sick.
There are about 500 to 600 lymph nodes in the human body, 30 to 40 of which are in the axilla. The axilla, in turn, is the area under the shoulder joint that connects the arm to the shoulder. Some of the lymph nodes in this region are within the armpit area.
There are also lymph nodes in the clavicle region, which includes the collarbone area.
If these lymph nodes near the breast come into contact with cancer cells, they may swell in response. This inflammation can occur as the nodes work to try to get rid of the cancerous cells.
In some cases, lymph nodes in the areas near the breast swell before lumps even appear. As such, it’s best to see a doctor as soon as you notice or feel these enlarged nodes.
4. Breast Pain Without an Apparent Cause
Breast pain is common during menstruation, but it can also be due to an unsupportive bra. Aching or stinging sensations can also result from breast injuries, infections, and breastfeeding. Noncancerous cysts can also sometimes feel painful.
However, breast pain may also be one of the early signs of breast cancer in women. This is especially true for inflammatory breast cancer (IBC). It’s rare, though, accounting for only about 1% to 5% of all breast cancer diagnoses in the US.
If you develop breast pain that doesn’t go away after your period, see a doctor right away. Even if it’s not breast cancer, pain in the breast without a clear cause can be a symptom of another condition. For example, the pain can be due to a pulled chest muscle, a bone fracture, or an inflammation around the ribs.
5. Visible Changes To the Nipple
The normal aging process can cause the nipples to indent, invert, or sink gradually. However, this normal occurrence happens on both nipples. A sudden inversion, especially if it affects only one nipple, warrants a trip to a doctor.
Do the same if you’ve noticed one of your nipples has retracted. Sudden nipple inversion or retraction can be a sign of breast cancer.
6. Unusual Discharge from the Nipples
Nipple discharge (ND) is any fluid or liquid that oozes out of one or both nipples. It could seep out on its own, but it may also come out only if you squeeze the nipple, such as during a breast self-exam.
Nipple discharge can occur in some women as part of their menstrual cycle. However, a breast infection can cause a greenish-yellow fluid to seep out of the nipples.
By contrast, pinkish or bloody discharge can indicate breast cancer. Researchers say that white discharge can still be an early sign of breast cancer, though. This is especially true if the fluid only seeps out of one nipple.
Regardless of the discharge’s color or viscosity, it’s best to see a doctor as soon as you can. This way, the specialist can run tests to determine if it’s due to hormones, infections, or cancer.
Be on the Lookout for These Early Warning Signs of Breast Cancer
As you can see, hard new lumps that don’t go away and swollen nodes are some of the early warning signs of breast cancer. Breast pain is another, as well as nipple discharge. If you notice any of these, call your primary physician or an oncologist right away.
The sooner you get seen by a doctor, the sooner you can get treatment (be it for breast cancer or another condition).
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