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How to recognize the signs of breast cancer

By The Health News Team | October 27, 2023
Woman performing a breast self-exam

There’s no question that getting regular mammograms once you reach 45 — or 40, based on your personal risk — is vital. According to the American Cancer Society, mammograms often detect breast cancer early, when it’s easier to treat. In fact, mammograms can often find changes within the breast long before symptoms arise.

However, knowing the symptoms of breast cancer is equally important as regular screenings. And in order to find a sign that something might be wrong, you need to know what your breasts feel like when all is right.

“Along with mammograms, being able to recognize changes in your breast is incredibly important,” says Dr. Sunanda Pejavar, a radiation oncologist affiliated with Sharp. “A common symptom of breast cancer is a lump or mass that has developed in the breast or underarm.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports other common symptoms of breast cancer include:

  • Thickening or swelling within the breast

  • Breast skin irritation

  • Dimpling of breast skin

  • Redness or flaky skin in the nipple area or elsewhere on the breast

  • A turning inward, or retraction, of the nipple

  • Pain in the nipple area

  • Nipple discharge other than breast milk, including blood

  • Any change in the size or shape of the breast

  • Pain in any area of the breast

“Having these symptoms does not immediately mean you have breast cancer,” Dr. Pejavar says. “Sometimes, lumps and tenderness in the breast can be related to your menstrual cycle or other hormonal changes and resolve on their own. However, you should always talk with your doctor about any changes you’re seeing.”

What happens next

If you find changes in your breasts, your doctor will most likely recommend scheduling an appointment for a physical exam. During the appointment, you will discuss the changes you’re noticing, any family history of breast cancer, medications or supplements you’re taking, and your overall health. Your doctor will also examine your breasts, under your arm and your upper chest area.

Your doctor may also recommend you get a mammogram, ultrasound or MRI. Based on the results of the imaging performed, you doctor may then want to order a biopsy. During a biopsy, small samples of cells and tissue can be taken using a very thin, hollow needle and tested for the presence of cancer. The procedure does not usually cause pain.

“A biopsy may cause minor discomfort,” says Dr. Pejavar. “But often, the concern surrounding the results is what affects patients more. Fortunately, we can assure patients that most biopsy results do not reveal cancer. And this is precisely why we perform them — to rule cancer out.”

If cancer is found, your doctor will order additional tests to determine the type and stage of cancer and make a plan for treatment. “There are many safe, effective treatments for breast cancer — from surgery and chemotherapy to hormonal, biological and radiation therapy — and together, your team of providers will ensure you receive the best possible care,” Dr. Pejavar says.

Learn more about breast cancer care at Sharp; get the latest health and wellness news, trends and patient stories from Sharp Health News; and subscribe to our weekly newsletter by clicking the "Sign up" link below.

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