What are the symptoms of breast cancer?

What signs to look for

It’s important to be aware of the symptoms of breast cancer and err on the side of caution if you’re at all worried. Check your breasts on a regular basis, know what signs to look out for and consult your doctor if you find anything out of the ordinary.

As a British consultant surgeon pointed out: “breasts tend to be very lumpy things!” So don’t fly into a panic if you find a lump because the chances there’s nothing wrong. Eight out of 10 lumps reported by women turn out to be benign (non-cancerous).


Pain in the breast is not normally a symptom of breast cancer in its early stages. In fact one of the most difficult things to come to terms with for sufferers is that the pain only starts with the treatment.

In many cases there are no obvious symptoms of early breast cancer which is why regular mammograms, over and above self-examination, are recommended for post-menopausal women.

Symptoms to look out for when checking your breasts include:
- Any unusual lumps in or around the breast or in the armpit. Hormonal changes can cause temporary lumps and tenderness (for example around the time of your period) so keep a close eye on any suspicious lump and if it’s still present after one full menstrual cycle, seek professional medical advice immediately.
- Any abnormal change in the size or shape of your breast
- Nipple discharge (bloody, pus-like or clear/yellow fluid)
- Retraction, enlargement or itching of the nipple
- Changes in the colour and feel of the nipple, areola (the dark circular area around the nipple) and the breast including a dimpling or “orange peel” puckering of the skin
- Redness, an orange-peel effect and increased temperature in the affected area can be signs of inflammatory breast cancer

Most suspicious lumps are found by women themselves. Early detection and treatment is important because these days the survival rate for women diagnosed early is extremely good. More than 90% of these sufferers survive beyond 5 years and most of those will be completely free of the disease.

Get to know your own breasts by doing regular self-examination and make notes (or draw a diagram) detailing any odd lumps and bumps you find. Don’t worry unduly about these because all breasts are made up of lobes, ducts and fat and so are inevitably lumpy. But when you come across a new or suspicious lump and it persists throughout your menstrual cycle, get it checked out by a professional.

Very often a skilled professional will be able to tell just from feeling the lump whether it is cancerous or benign. If not, he or she will order further tests – a mammogram, ultrasound scan or biopsy – before making a diagnosis. Whilst this is obviously a hugely stressful time for anyone living under the shadow of breast cancer, just remember that 80% of breast lumps are NOT cancerous.

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