Breast Cancer Symptoms
There are often no symptoms of breast cancer, but sometimes women may discover a breast problem on their own. Signs and symptoms to be aware of may include:
- A painless lump in the breast
- Changes in breast size or shape
- Swelling in the armpit
- Nipple changes or discharge
Breast pain can also be a symptom of cancer, but this is not common.
Signs of Inflammatory Breast Cancer
Inflammatory breast cancer is a rare, fast-growing type of cancer that often causes no distinct lump. Instead, breast skin may become thick, red, and may look pitted -- like an orange peel. The area may also feel warm or tender and have small bumps that look like a rash.
Breast Ultrasound and MRI
Besides a mammogram, your doctor may order additional imaging with breast ultrasound. An ultrasound can help determine the presence of cysts, fluid-filled sacs that are not cancer. An MRI may be recommended along with a mammogram for routine screening in certain women who have a higher risk of breast cancer.
It was once widely recommended that women check their own breasts once a month. But studies suggest these breast self-exams play a very small role in finding cancer. The current thinking is that it’s more important to know your breasts and be aware of any changes, rather than checking them on a regular schedule. If you want to do breast self-exams, be sure to go over the technique with your doctor.
What If You Find a Lump?
First, don't panic. Eighty percent of breast lumps are not cancerous. Lumps often turn out to be harmless cysts or tissue changes related to your menstrual cycle. But you should let your doctor know right away if you find anything unusual in your breast. If it is cancer, the earlier it's found the better. And if it's not, testing can give you peace of mind.
Hormone-Sensitive Breast Cancer
Some types of breast cancer are fueled by the hormones estrogen or progesterone. A biopsy can reveal whether a tumor has receptors for estrogen (ER-positive) and/or progesterone (PR-positive). About two out of three breast cancers are hormone sensitive. There are several medications that keep the hormones from promoting further cancer growth.
The image shows a molecular model of an estrogen receptor.
HER2-Positive Breast Cancer
In about 20% of patients, breast cancer cells have too many receptors for a protein called HER2. This type of cancer is known as HER2-positive, and it tends to spread faster than other forms of breast cancer. It's important to determine whether a tumor is HER2-positive, because there are special treatments for this form of cancer.
A HER2-positive breast cancer cell is illustrated here, with abnormal growth signals shown in green.
Breast Cancer Stages
Once breast cancer has been diagnosed, the next step is to determine how big the tumor is and how far the cancer has spread. This process is called staging. Doctors use Stages 0-4 to describe whether cancer is localized to the breast, has invaded nearby lymph nodes, or has spread to other organs, such as the lungs. Knowing the stage and type of breast cancer will help your health care team formulate a treatment strategy.
Chemotherapy for Breast Cancer
Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer cells anywhere in the body. The drugs are often given by IV, but are sometimes taken by mouth or shot. Chemotherapy may be done after surgery to lower the odds of the cancer coming back. In women with advanced breast cancer, chemotherapy can help control the cancer's growth. Side effects may include hair loss, nausea, fatigue, and a higher risk of infection.