7 Early Warning Signs of Breast Cancer


by Melanie Haiken

The earliest and most surprising signs of breast cancer, as described by the women who know: breast cancer survivors themselves.

Breast cancer warning sign #1: Pain in the breast or chest

Whether it’s an ache, throb, twinge, or sharp stab, pain or discomfort in the breast or chest area isn’t a good sign.

How it feels: One breast cancer survivor describes the pain she brought to her doctor’s attention as a “sharp pain that comes and goes.” Another describes it as “a mild electric sensation that went from my left breast to my right nipple.”

What causes it: Breast tumors can take many different forms; there can be a single lump, but there can also be an area of scattered seed-like tumors or an amorphous shape with multiple tentacles extending into the tissue. The tumor might also be directly behind the nipple or in one of the milk ducts. All of these growths cause different types of pain and discomfort.

Scary stat: As many as 30 percent of all breast cancer tumors aren’t lumps, which makes them harder to detect.

What to do: Keep track of when, where, and how often the pain occurs. Tell your doctor, being as specific as possible. Make sure to be clear that this is a new symptom, different from any other sensation (such as the sore breasts of PMS) you’ve experienced before. If your doctor diagnoses mastitis and prescribes antibiotics (a typical response to breast pain), take the full cycle. But if the pain hasn’t gone away, inform your doctor and ask for additional tests. Many women are told repeatedly that they have mastitis before they’re able to make clear to the doctor that this isn’t the case.

Breast cancer warning sign #2: Itchy breasts


This symptom, primarily associated with inflammatory breast cancer, is often missed. You’d be surprised how many women with inflammatory breast cancer spend months visiting the dermatologist, only to be sent home with creams and medications for a rash.

How it feels: Extremely itchy — the type of itch you might have with poison oak or ivy, which makes you feel like you absolutely have to scratch. Except scratching doesn’t help, and neither do the ointments that typically relieve itchiness. Your breast may also feel irritated, or the skin may be scaly or dimpled like cellulite.

What causes it: Fast-growing cancer cells block blood and lymph vessels that feed the skin. The normal flow of lymph through breast tissues is impeded, and fluid builds up in and under the skin.

Scary stat: The median age of diagnosis for inflammatory breast cancer is 57 (54 among African-American women), and it’s typically more aggressive than other types of breast cancer, with a five-year survival rate of 34 percent.

What to do: If the skin of your breast looks odd or your breasts feel different, see your doctor right away. If the doctor suggests a skin ailment or an infection and sends you home with a prescription, return immediately if your symptoms don’t go away.

Breast cancer warning sign #3: Upper back, shoulder, and neck pain


In some women, breast cancer is felt in the back or shoulders rather than in the chest or breasts. For this reason, spine specialists routinely look for the presence of tumors when treating chronic back pain that’s unrelieved by physical therapy.

How it feels: The pain, which is typically in the upper back or between the shoulder blades, is easily confused with sore muscles, a pulled tendon or ligament, or osteoarthritis of the spine. The difference is that it doesn’t go away with stretching muscles or changing position. Bone pain feels like a deep ache or throbbing.

What causes it: Most breast tumors develop in the glandular tissue of the breast, which extends deep into the chest, close to the chest wall. If tumor growth pushes backward toward the ribs and spine, the resulting pain may be felt in the back rather than in the breast. The first place breast cancer usually metastasizes, or spreads, is to the spine or ribs, becoming secondary bone cancer.

Scary stat: According to one study, the five-year survival rate for breast cancer patients whose cancer has spread to the bone is only 8.3 percent, compared with an overall survival rate of 75 percent.

What to do: Pay close attention to how back pain feels. If it doesn’t go away with rest, stretching, or physical therapy, see your doctor. Keep the doctor informed if back pain continues despite treatment, and request a bone scan.

Breast cancer warning sign #4: Changes in breast shape, size, or appearance


Contrary to popular belief, not all breast tumors cause a hard lump close enough to the surface to be noticeable. “Instead of feeling a lump, I noticed that one of my breasts was more oval than the other, hanging down lower and sort of sticking out to one side,” says a California woman who discovered she had breast cancer at the age of 42.

How it feels: Because this change is one of appearance more than feel, your partner may notice it before you do. Or you might become aware of it as you put on your bra or look at yourself in the mirror at the gym.

What causes it: Tissue growth that’s deeper in the breast or masked by dense breast tissue may push out the shape or size of the breast without causing a noticeable lump. If you’ve been told you have dense breast tissue, be particularly alert for this sign.

Scary stat: Mammograms miss up to 50 percent of tumors in women with dense breasts.

What to do: Study the size and shape of your breasts in a mirror. Sit facing the mirror and look at both breasts dead-on, then raise your arms, turn sideways, and look from each side. If there’s a difference in size or shape you haven’t noticed before, bring it to your doctor’s attention.

Breast cancer warning sign #5: A change in nipple appearance or sensitivity


One of the most common locations for a breast tumor is just beneath the nipple, which can cause changes in the appearance and feel of the nipple itself. In particular, nipple changes are often the giveaway for men with breast cancer.

How it feels: You may notice that one of your nipples sticks up less than it used to, or it might have become inverted, flattened, or indented. Women with breast cancer often recall that they noticed a decrease in nipple sensitivity, which is most likely to come to your attention — or your partner’s attention — during sex. Another nipple change to take seriously is discharge when you’re not breastfeeding, whether it’s bloody, milky, or watery. The skin of the nipple may become crusty, scaly, or inflamed.

What causes it: Many breast cancers start in the milk ducts just under and around the nipple, affecting the nipple’s appearance or causing pain or discharge. There’s also a rare cancer, Paget’s disease of the breast, that specifically strikes the nipple. A tumor in the milk ducts, just behind or to one side of the nipple, pushes the skin up around the nipple or pushes the nipple aside. As tumors grow, they may attach to — and thus retract — the skin or the nipple itself. The tumor might also cause irritation and infection, leading to discharge.

Scary stat: The American Society of Breast Surgeons recently released research that male breast cancer is typically identified later and is deadlier than breast cancer in women.

What to do: Because some women have naturally inverted nipples or have discharge during and post-pregnancy, a doctor won’t necessarily notice this symptom. Since you’re the one who knows best what your nipples look like, pay close attention to any changes and discuss them with your doctor. Mastitis is a common conclusion for doctors presented with nipple changes, in which case you’ll be sent home with antibiotics. If they haven’t cleared up the symptoms within ten days, go back and request scans.

Breast cancer warning sign #6: Swelling or lump in your armpit


You know how the lymph nodes in your neck and throat can feel sore when you have the flu? Any pain in the armpit is a sign to check the area carefully with your fingers. A lump under the armpit is likely to be hard and attached to surrounding tissues, so it doesn’t move when you touch it. Or tissue may feel thickened and dense compared with the armpit on the other side.

How it feels: Like a sore or tender spot under the arm. You may also feel a lump, though not necessarily. Affected lymph nodes may feel swollen or tender or develop a lump before a tumor is big enough to be felt in the breast itself. In some women, the swelling is more prominent under the arm or up under the collarbone.

What causes it: The lymph nodes in your armpit are where breast cancer spreads first, by way of lymphatic fluid that drains from the breast. Since the lymph nodes are the first place it’s likely to metastasize, breast cancer is staged according to whether it’s lymph-node positive or negative.

Scary stat: If breast cancer has spread to the lymph nodes, the five-year survival rate declines to 84 percent, as compared with 98 percent for node-negative breast cancer.

What to do: Colds, flu, and infection can also cause swollen lymph nodes, so if you’re sick or have an infection, wait for it to clear up before you worry. But if a lump or tender spot in the underarm area persists for a week with no apparent cause, see your doctor.

Breast cancer warning sign #7: Red, swollen breasts


When your breasts hurt, it’s easy to conclude that it’s the typical soreness of PMS. And if your breasts feel hot or look reddened, you might suspect an infection such as mastitis. But these are also signs of inflammatory breast cancer.

How it feels: It’s as if your breasts have a fever. They may feel swollen and sore, or the skin and underlying tissue may feel hot or look red or even purple.

What causes it: Inflammatory breast cancer is the most likely cause of this symptom. But breast tumors can also push on tissues, causing breasts to feel swollen and sore. In this case, you may also see, upon checking, that your breast is distended.

Scary stat: Once breast cancer has spread beyond the breast (stage IV), the average survival is less than four years. So it’s extremely important to detect breast cancer as early as possible.

What to do: Call your doctor right away about any symptom that could be inflammatory breast cancer. If the pain is diagnosed as mastitis and you’re prescribed antibiotics, you should feel better within a week to ten days. If you don’t, call your doctor and be assertive about additional tests.


Caring.com User - Melanie Haiken

About the Author:  Senior Editor Melanie Haiken, is responsible for Caring.com’s coverage of cancer, general health, and family finance, discovered how important it is to provide accurate, targeted, usable health information to people facing difficult decisions when she was health editor of Parenting magazine. She has written about health and family-related issues for magazines such as Health , Real Simple , Woman’s Day , Yoga Journal , and websites such as BabyCenter.com, WebMD, and the Blue Cross/Blue Shield websites (aHealthyMe.com, aHealthyAdvantage.com) managed by Consumer Health Interactive. Melanie has held positions as Executive Editor at the Industry Standard and BabyCenter.com , and Managing Editor at San Francisco magazine. She has also worked for San Francisco’s renowned Center for Investigative Reporting. She has a master’s degree in Journalism and a B.A. in English, both from the University of California at Berkeley.

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19 thoughts on “7 Early Warning Signs of Breast Cancer

  1. Wow that was strange. I just wrote an very long comment but after
    I clicked submit my comment didn’t show up. Grrrr… well I’m not writing all
    that over again. Anyway, just wanted to say wonderful blog!

  2. what causes breast pain and tenderness
    I am happy with your all your articles and blogs. I have learned more and more from your blogs and this one is one of your best other writings.
    Very often women feel tenderness and pain in breasts but fail to figure out why. Breast pain is medically known as mastalgia and it is not related with breast cancer. Thinking what causes breast pain and tenderness, explore the article written below. how can fit your body visit here:- http://www.forgirls.info

  3. How do I get my Doctor to listen to me!? I want to have an MRI or CT scan as I have all of the IBC signs and symptoms. I am 40, no children, very dense breasts and a sister whom is a 10 year DCIS and breast cancer survivor ( yes, it came back 6 mths later in what little tissue was left in the same breast!).
    So between the two of us and our mum we have done a lot of reading in women’s health.

    1. If your physician isn’t listening to your concerns, I recommend seeking a new one. It’s like any other relationship in your life. Good communication is key. One thing you don’t want to do is worry yourself sick. Thoughts are powerful. You, your sister and Mom need think healthy thoughts. Prior to your doctor’s appointment take some time to close your eyes, breathe and imagine good health and healing in your body. Do this every morning and especially when you go to sleep at night. I imagine one of the reasons you want the CT scan or MRI is to help put your mind at ease. You didn’t say what your other symptoms are but make sure you discuss all the above with your physician. It is wise to get a second opinion. Express the above concerns when you make your appointment. Continue to keep your mind free of worry. Hope this helps. Please let me know how it work out. Thank you following this blog.

  4. This is exactly what I was looking for. I am 35 years of age and in the past few days my right breast has been itching below my nipple (no rash or redness) but i have noticed pain in my upper back behind my scapula on my right side. Since its only been recent i thought that it could be related to a pulled muscle or a pinched nerve in my pack that can result in my breast being itchy. Should i wait a few more days before I see the Doctor?

    1. I would schedule an appointment with your doctor right away. Bring along a good log of your symptoms, including when they first started, what you were doing prior to then (activity level, foods eaten, beverages, sleep and when you feel the back pain, itching). You say the itching has only been a few days, so don’t worry as it can even be contact dermatitis (some product you’re using), but do share ALL your concerns with your doctor, so he/she can be sure to do proper tests to alleviate them. Keep us posted. Best.

      1. Hi Maria. Thanks for your advice. I will keep you posted and will keep a log of the things I do and eat. As I say, this is the first time Ive noticed the itch in my breast together with the pain in my back. What Ive noticed last night is that pain in my breast is aligned to where the pain is in my back and its almost like an itch too. Very strange. Will go and see what my Doctor says. Thanks again.

      2. Interesting. I always say to listen to our own bodies, so there must be something to that connection. I’d be real interested in what you learn. While you’re awaiting that doctor appointment I advised you make right away, mediate on light, healing and that it will all be okay. You’re most welcome. Look forward to hearing good news –that this is something temporary that can be resolved.

  5. Hi Maria, Woke up this morning and noticed the place where I was itching had looked as if a bee had stung me. It was a small white circle with a red dot and thought it to be very strange as it was not there on Wednesday when i first started with the itch. Now as I got home today I noticed that I have more bumps developing in the same area. Not sure that is due to me constantly scratching it. So I am thinking it could be a spider bite. Will keep an eye on it.

  6. Hello. I have gone to my dr. And he said there is nothing to worry about. He then sent me over to a surgeon and she said there is nothing to worry about. My left breast fells very heavy and most days has a dull to a very sharp pain for four months. The right breast has started to have the same feel as the left breast. I have had two mammo and ultra sound and I have dense breast level 2. But the dr told me to loss weight, stop drinking pop (I only had one can a day) and to take primrose evening. Did all that and within a week the primrose made me so sick. Then was put on a two week antibacterial and inflammation medication. That did not help at all. The breast does itch but comes and goes. This has been going on for four months now. Last night my shoulder and between my shoulder hurts. All my dr said was I have to live with it the rest of my life. I am 41 years old have two grown boys and a full blown histo when I was 22. I can say this last weekend I was walking in the mountains with my husband and I a,most hit the ground my left breast hurt so bad, I was in tears and my husband was in tears. I am tired of the pain.


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