Breast cancer is a disease of the breast tissue resulting from an overgrowth of cells. This abnormal growth often leads to the development of a cancerous tumor. Untreated, breast cancer can spread to nearby lymph nodes and tissues and, ultimately, throughout the body. Breast cancer carries a good prognosis if it is caught before it metastasizes or spreads. Early detection is key, and awareness of warning signs and symptoms can make the difference between a positive prognosis and a long battle.

Lump or Mass in the Breast

Often, the first sign of breast cancer is a new lump in the breast. Malignant or cancerous lumps are typically hard, immovable, and irregularly shaped. Lumps are not uncommon in healthy breast tissue. Regular mammograms, physicals, self-exams are important in detecting and monitoring harmless lumps. A lump of any kind, however, should be examined by a doctor, particularly a newly developed lump.

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Puckering of the Breast

Puckering of the breast may indicate an abnormal growth. This occurs particularly when a lump is developing close to the surface of the skin, though it can appear even in the absence of a lump. Puckering is indentations in the breast and may be the first visible sign of breast cancer. It should be noted, however, that other, non-cancerous conditions and factors can cause a puckered appearance.

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Changes to the Nipple

Any change to the nipple may indicate cancerous cell growth in the breast. The symptoms of a rare type of cancer called Paget's disease are confined to the nipple and the areola. Paget's disease develops in the ducts inside the nipple. Signs include a previously uninverted nipple turning inward or flattening, scaling in the area, discharge, and thickening of or abnormal sensation in the nipple.

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Surface Inflammation of the Breast

Breast cancer may cause inflammation of the breast skin. Common indicators of this include red or purple rash-like coloring of the breast and thickening or scaling of the skin. The breast may feel warm, sensitive, and tender. Inflammation is especially symptomatic of inflammatory breast cancer or IBC, which occurs when cancer cells block the lymphatic vessels in the breast tissue. This type of cancer is highly aggressive and spreads quickly, so early detection is crucial.

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Nipple Discharge

Nipple discharge in healthy breasts is common and usually not cause for concern. Several characteristics distinguish discharged caused by cancer (pathological) from normal discharge. The latter most often occurs in both breasts, while pathological discharge typically occurs only in the affected nipple. Normal discharge is yellow, green, or milky, while cancerous discharge is more likely to be brown or clear. Discharge containing blood is particularly suspicious. Pathological discharge appears early in breast cancer, though rarely in the absence of other symptoms.

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Changes in Texture

Cancer of the breast may cause changes to the appearance of the breast. Peau d' orange, French for "orange peel," describes the rough, dimpled texture a cancerous breast may develop. This change in texture is commonly associated with inflammatory breast cancer and accompanies other symptoms of surface inflammation characteristic of the type.

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Changes in Breast Shape or Size

Differences in size or shape between healthy breasts are not uncommon — most breasts are asymmetrical, whether noticeable or not. Breasts also change shape or size as a result of aging, weight fluctuation, and hormones. A sudden change in the appearance of one breast, however, could be cause for concern. Inflammatory swelling caused by cancer or the growth of a lump can cause this, particularly if the lump has grown rapidly or occurs near the surface.


Symptoms Beyond the Breast

Breast cancer may lead to symptoms outside the breast area, called non-breast symptoms. Detecting breast cancer by way of non-breast symptoms is difficult due to their generality. These symptoms include fatigue, weight loss, back pain, and breathlessness. Breast cancer is rarely identified or diagnosed based on non-breast symptoms alone.

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Swollen Lymph Nodes

As cancer in the breast progresses, it may spread to the surrounding lymph nodes. Affected lymph nodes feel like a hard lump beneath the skin, most often in the armpit or around the collar bone. In rare cases, swollen lymph nodes are discovered before the detection of other symptoms of breast cancer.

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Advanced Stage Symptoms

Left undetected and untreated, breast cancer can metastasize to the lymph nodes, tissues, and organs. When cancer spreads from the breast, it is called secondary breast cancer. The disease most often attacks the liver, lungs, and bones. Signs of metastasis depend on the tissue or organ to which cancer has spread but typically include malaise, fatigue, appetite loss, nausea, and persistent respiratory disturbances.

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