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Common Signs & Symptoms of Breast Cancer

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: December 2018.

Breast cancer develops when changes occur in the cells that make up the breast. Most breast cancers develop from the cells that make up the milk ducts, and these are called ductal carcinomas. Breast cancer can also develop from the cells that make up the glands that produce breast milk, called lobular carcinomas, or breast cancer can develop from the connective tissue in the breast, called sarcomas.1,2 These cancerous changes that occur in the breast can cause a variety of signs and symptoms.

Signs and symptoms of breast cancer

When cancer develops in the breast, it can cause symptoms such as3:

  • A lump or an area of thickened tissue in or around the breast
  • Changes in the size or shape of the breast
  • Changes to the nipple, such as a turning inward (or retraction) of the nipple
  • Changes to the skin of the breast, including a dimple or puckering
  • Discharge from the nipple (other than breast milk), possibly bloody fluid
  • Changes to the areola (the darker area of skin around the nipple), including scaly, red, or swollen tissue
  • Multiple dimples on the skin of the breast that resembles an orange skin (peau d’orange)

Many non-cancerous (benign) conditions may also cause these types of symptoms, so it is important that any changes in the breast be checked by a doctor for further evaluation. Pain in the breast is not commonly a symptom of breast cancer, but any pain that doesn’t go away should be mentioned to a doctor.4 When a person is experiencing any of these potential signs or symptoms of breast cancer, several tests may be used to diagnose the cause of the symptoms, including a clinical breast exam, mammogram, ultrasound, and/or biopsy.3

Symptoms of inflammatory breast cancer

Inflammatory breast cancer is a rare type of breast cancer that may not form a tumor that can be felt but causes the breast to look inflamed: red, warm, and swollen. Only 1-5% of all breast cancers are inflammatory breast cancer. Inflammatory breast cancer may not form a tumor, but the cancerous cells block the lymph vessels, causing the symptoms of swelling and redness. It tends to be more aggressive and when it is diagnosed, it is considered a locally advanced breast cancer (at least Stage III).1,5

Symptoms of metastatic breast cancer

When breast cancer spreads to other organs or parts of the body, it is called metastatic breast cancer. Despite where cancer may spread, it is still considered breast cancer, as the cancer is named for where it originated. When it metastasizes, breast cancer most often spreads to the bones, liver, lungs, and/or brain, although it can spread to various parts of the body.6 Signs or symptoms of metastatic breast cancer differ depending on where the metastasis occurs.

If breast cancer metastasizes to the bone, it can cause symptoms such as7,8:

  • Pain in the affected bone
  • Bone fractures or breaks
  • Swelling
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Loss of appetite
  • Dehydration

Breast cancer that metastasizes to the liver may not cause symptoms at first. However, it can cause symptoms, including8,9:

  • Jaundice, a yellowing of the whites of the eyes and the skin
  • Itchy skin
  • Pain or swelling in the abdomen or under the rib cage on the right side
  • Weight loss
  • Loss of appetite

Breast cancer that spreads to the lungs may cause symptoms such as8,10:

  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • A constant dry cough
  • Wheezing
  • Pain in the lungs

Breast cancer that metastasizes to the brain may cause symptoms such as8,11:

  • Headache
  • Confusion or memory problems
  • Seizures
  • Dizziness or loss of balance
  • Vision changes
  • Changes to personality or mood
  • Slurred speech

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