The incidence of breast cancer has dropped since 2000 but this deadly disease still kills about 40,000 women in the United States every year. Early diagnosis is one of the key factors in reducing deaths from breast cancer, as is improvement in medical and surgical treatment. However, 1 in 8 American women will still develop breast cancer resulting in almost 250,000 new cases every year.
How to Spot Breast Cancer?
Breast cancer becomes more likely as a woman gets older and most cases occur in women over the age of 40 years. A family history of breast cancer is a major risk factor meaning that a woman who has a first-degree relative (mother or sister) with breast cancer is more likely to develop the condition. However, as many as 85% of breast cancer cases occur in women with no family history of this cancer.
Read more on breast cancer.
It is therefore recommended that women are routinely screened for breast cancer from the age of 40. The frequency of this screening with mammograms depends on the individual risk profile as well as age. However, self-examination of the breast on a regular basis is also effective in spotting breast cancer relatively early. This self-examination should be done at least once a month and followed up with a gynecologist examination once a year.
For women over the age of 40, a self-examination of the breast should not be used as a means to replace a mammogram. Both investigations are important. Remember that the signs and symptoms of breast cancer discussed below may occur in isolation or several signs occur simultaneously. The presentation can vary among individuals, with some signs not being present in every woman with breast cancer.
Read more on how to do a breast self exam.
Lump in the Breast
This is the most common sign of breast cancer and may be discovered during a self-examination or with a mammogram. Not all lumps are breast cancer. Some lumps can come and go during the course of the menstrual cycle as the hormones causes changes in the breast tissue. These type of ‘fluctuating’ lumps are not abnormal but should still be investigated by a gynecologist is there is any doubt.
With breast cancer the lump does resolve at all and does not even shrink in size. With time it may increase in size. The breast cancer lump is also hard and fixed to the skin or chest wall. It is also usually irregular in shape and tender but not painful in the early stages. Remember that even a painful lump may not be cancer. Always have a breast lump checked by a medical professional before assuming that it is breast cancer.
Lumps in Armpit
Small and hard lumps in the armpit or armpits are another sign of breast cancer. These lumps are enlarged lymph nodes and is a sign that the cancer has spread from the breast tissue to the lymph nodes.The axilla (armpits) are a major group of lymph nodes which drains lymph from the breast. Cancer cells may also travel through these vessels.
Lymph nodes can enlarge for various other reasons such as infections and autoimmune diseases. However, when breast cancer is present and the armpit (axillary lymph nodes) are hard and large then the possibility of cancer spread has to be investigated.
Changes in Breast Size, Shape and Skin
Contrary to popular belief, the two breasts are not equal in size and shape. However, this variation is minor and usually not noticeable. A change in breast size and shape, particularly on one side, may be a sign of breast cancer. There may be an uneven enlargening of the breast and the shape may be deformed to varying degrees due to a mass within the breast. However, breast cancer is not the only cause of these changes.
The other alteration that may be seen with breast cancer is a change in the overlying skin of the breast. Signs of skin inflammation including redness, swelling, heat and tenderness may sometimes be seen with inflammatory breast cancer but can also occur with other causes like an infection. In breast cancer there may be puckering or dimplimg of the skin which along with thickening is referred to as peau d’orange (orange peel skin). Itching may also be present.
Changes in the Nipples
Nipple changes are another sign of breast cancer. This can vary from changes in the appearance of the nipple to abnormal secretions. Breast cancer may result in inversion of the nipples. This is where the nipple points inwards instead of outwards. Inverted nipples may occur naturally in some women and this is not abnormal. However, when there is a sudden retraction of the nipples then breast cancer is a possible cause.
Discharge from the nipples can vary from clear fluid to milky white even when the latter is not due to breastmilk production related to pregnacy and childbirth. Usually the fluid is secreted when the breast is physically stimulated. However, in breast cancer there can be spontaneous nipple discharge meaning that the secretion is expelled on its own. The sign of blood in the secretion is always a cause for concern and may be due to breast cancer.
There are various other signs and symptoms that may be present with breast cancer. Some are common to most types of cancer, such as unintentional weight loss, changes in appetite, nausea and fatigue. As the tumor becomes larger or spreads then other signs and symptoms may become evident including fluid in the lungs (pulmonary edema) with a cough and shortness of breath, jaundice, headaches and bone pain.
It is important to note that most of these other signs and symptoms tend to occur later in breast cancer. It can also be due to other conditions apart from breast cancer. Therefore it is important to consult with a medical professional once these signs and symptoms become evident. Furthermore regular screening for breast cancer is imperative for early diagnosis which can greatly improve the prognosis. Remember that breast cancer can be deadly.