Breast cancer symptoms and detection

Breast cancer is medical condition in which there is a malignant growth of the breast cells.

Understanding breast cancer

Cancers involving the breasts are very common. It can affect both men and women, but it is more common in women. Annually, breast cancer accounts for 12.5% of all new cancer cases worldwide1. With early detection and appropriate treatment, prognosis can improve.

Common symptoms of breast cancer

There are some common symptoms of breast cancer to look out for. These are not always indicative of the disease, but they may be relevant warning signs to stay alert to. If you notice any changes in your breasts, you should promptly contact your healthcare provider.

Breast Lump

One of the earliest breast cancer symptoms is the detection of a breast lump or lumps. However, not all breast lumps signify malignancy. The good thing is that almost 80% of lumps found in or around the breasts are benign and not harmful2.

A lump feels like a seed, bump, or a slight swelling when you run your hands around your breasts. They can be moveable, while others are fixed to the skin.

The benign lumps can be triggered by fluctuations in your hormones, such as estrogen and progesterone, throughout your menstrual cycle and even in pregnancy. These lumps appear and disappear within each phase of your menstrual cycle. Other benign lumps can be caused by trauma or injury to the breast, infections such as mastitis, and some fibrocystic breast diseases.

The malignant lumps are firmer, fixed to the breast tissues, non-mobile, and irregularly shaped. One overt sign to watch out for is how rapidly the lump grows. Malignant or cancerous lumps usually grow very fast. However, the rapid speed of growth does not always point to malignancy, as some breast cancers are slow-growing.

Changes in breast size or shape

Many factors can cause the breast to change size or shape. During pregnancy, the breasts may appear slightly bigger and fuller due to an increase in the number of glands responsible for milk production3. Menopausal women, on the other hand, may experience slightly reduced breast size due to an increase in fatty tissues.

While the aforementioned conditions are expected, changes in breasts size and shape not related to a female’s menstrual cycle should be investigated as it’s one of the most common breast cancer symptoms. These changes could involve a rapid growth in the size of one or even both of the breasts. It could also include a change in the normal contour of the breast.

Nipple changes

Changes in a nipple should not be overlooked. If you have a flat nipple that suddenly starts looking inverted, you should call your healthcare provider.

In breast cancer, the nipples may also retract4. This involves the nipples turning inwards. In addition, you might start to experience nipple discharge. The discharge may be milky, bloody, or colorless. It could also be foul-smelling. These changes should be evaluated further by your healthcare provider.

Breast pain

Breast pain is not a common symptom of breast cancer. In fact, only about 15% percent of women diagnosed with breast cancer experience pain5. Nevertheless, breast pain should also promptly be reported to your provider.

Skin Abnormalities

One common skin change in breast cancer is a peau d’ orange appearance, which translates to orange peel. Here, the skin of the breast appears pitted or dimpled, just like the peel of an orange. It is more noticeable when the arms are suspended in an elevated position.

The skin around the breast can also become red and swollen, especially with the inflammatory type of breast cancer6. Advanced stage breast cancer may present with ulceration and open sores.

Book an appointment with your healthcare provider if you notice any of these symptoms. Breast cancer early detection is key to better prognosis.

What are breast self-exams?

To detect the symptoms of breast cancer early enough, a regular breast self-exam can be the first step you take. As the name implies, a self-breast exam is an examination of your own breasts to discover any symptom suggestive of breast cancer7. It involves a series of physical and visual inspections of your breasts to feel for lumps, distortions, or other concerning symptoms not otherwise present initially.

How to perform a breast self-exam?

Simple and easy techniques are available to help you perform a self-breast examination regularly and perfectly. These techniques have been grouped into five easy steps to help you remember.

  1. Proper exposure: Take off your shirt and bra for proper exposure to see all parts of your breast.
  2. Get a mirror: Your choice of mirror should be a plain mirror. Don’t use a mirror that alters the shape of your body parts. It could be a limitation to your self-breast examination. While in front of the mirror, check for the shape, color, skin changes, and size of your breasts with your hands on your hips. Look out for any redness, dimpling and even check if both breasts are alike.
  3. Raise arms overhead: Signs missed when the hands were placed at the hips might become visible when the arms are raised upwards. Repeat the check for shape, color, breast symmetry, and skin changes while your arms are raised upwards. Also, check for the shape of your nipples if inverted and then for any nipple discharge.
  4. Lie down: Next, lie down on your back on a flat firm surface. Raise your right hand up, use the pad of your three left fingers, and palpate your right breast. Start with a massage of your nipples and move inwards. Increase the perimeter of the palpation in circular manner until you get to your armpit, ribs and collarbone of your right side. Start with a light palpation, then vary the pressure to a firm one.

As you proceed, look out to see if you can feel a lump, bump, or thickened skin around those areas. Repeat the step on your left breast using the three pads of your right fingers with your left arm raised over your head in a lying position.

  1. Stand up: The self-breast exam is completed with you standing. Repeat the steps you did while lying down in the stand-up position.

The best time to do a self-breast exam is around 3-5 days when your menstruation begins. Menopausal women should fix a particular date every month for their self-breast examination.

The goal is to have a regular self-breast examination schedule, but self-breast examination should not replace medical screening for breast cancer examination8. It is essential that individuals book regular screening tests with their healthcare provider if they are at a higher risk for breast cancer.

Screening methods for early detection

Finding breast cancer early enough is a key factor in getting a better treatment outcome. Screening tests for breast cancer can be used to get more information about your breast health. Talk to your healthcare provider to determine which screening method is best for you.

Common screening methods include:

A Mammography

During a mammogram, an x-ray is used to produce pictures of your breast. Mammograms can help detect subtle abnormalities like calcifications, tumors, and other breast changes otherwise invisible to the eye. This is the most recommended screening test for breast cancer and in the United States, a regular mammogram is recommended for women between the ages of 50 and 74, at least once every two years9. Talk to your healthcare provider to see if you should get a mammogram.

Breast Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)

A breast MRI is more suitable for women with dense breast. It uses strong magnets and radio waves to produce detailed picture of the breast. However, this is not a first-line screening because of its cost and tendency to detect breast masses that are not cancerous10.

Breast Ultrasound

A breast ultrasound helps to further evaluate the result of a mammogram, especially in women with dense breasts.

Blood Tests

Certain blood tests, called biomarkers, can help screen for breast cancer.  Biomarker assays include CA 15-3, CA 27-29, and HER2.

Clinical Breast Exam

A clinical breast exam is usually the initial, easy, and cost-effective to screen for breast cancer. A clinician is trained in detecting subtle abnormalities and breast changes.

A healthcare professional visually and manually inspects your breasts to ensure that there are no concerning breast changes. This screening test is recommended to occur every three years for women between 20 and 40 years old and yearly for women above 40 years old11.

Benefits of early detection

Like all forms of cancers, when breast cancers are detected early, they generally lead to an overall better outcome than when they are detected later.

Increased treatment options

With early detection, you may have a wider range of cancer treatments to choose from, from lumpectomy to chemotherapy and other treatment modalities.

Improved prognosis

Early detection can also lead to a better prognosis of the disease in terms of financial implication, burden on other family members, duration of hospital stays, and the psychological significance of the disease on you.

Better chances of survival

Lastly, and most importantly, early breast cancer detection can lead to a better chance of survival. When breast cancers are detected early enough, especially in the localized stage, there is a 99% five-year survival rate12.

The importance of breast health awareness

The goal of breast health awareness is to encourage women to take control of their breast health by learning how to reduce the risk for breast cancer, encourage early screening, and reduce the mortality rate of the disease.

This involves raising awareness of the importance of screening and helping women to understand modifiable risk factors for breast cancer to make dietary and lifestyle changes. Breast health awareness also fosters community support for individuals going through breast challenges.

Embrace early detection to promote better outcomes

Having a good knowledge of breast cancer symptoms and embracing early detection methods helps to promote better outcomes and increased survival rates for patients. Take charge of your breast health today by staying informed and contacting a medical professional should you experience any symptoms.


  1. “Breast Cancer Facts and Statistics.” Breast Cancer Organization.
  2. “What is Breast cancer?” The University of Texas: MD Anderson Cancer Center.
  3. “Breast Cancer.” American Cancer Society.
  4. “Breast Cancer Care.” UCLA Health: Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center
  5. “Is breast pain a sign of cancer?” Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center. January 14, 2022.
  6. “Inflammatory Breast Cancer.” Cleveland Clinic
  7. “Breast self-exam for breast awareness.” Mayo Clinic.
  8. Ibid.
  9. “What is Breast Cancer Screening?” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  10. “Breast Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI).” Johns Hopkins Medicine.
  11. “Breast Cancer Screening & Early Detection.” Susan G. Komen.
  12. “Survival Rates for Breast Cancer.” American Cancer Society.


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