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What does breast cancer look or feel like, does it hurt?

Medically reviewed by Carmen Fookes, BPharm. Last updated on Oct 14, 2021.

Official answer

by Drugs.com

Feeling, or seeing, a lump in your breast is one of the most common symptoms of breast cancer. This lump could be located anywhere along your chest wall to under your armpit, and in many cases, it is painless. But not everyone will have a lump, and most lumps aren’t breast cancer, so you should get every lump thoroughly investigated by a doctor.

Other symptoms include nipple bleeding or discharge, a puckering or dimpling of the skin in the breast area, or breast pain, which can hurt. There may be an area of redness or swelling in one breast and not the other, and your nipple may look flat or caved in. Some women don’t experience ANY symptoms at all, but breast cancer screening with either a mammogram, MRI, or digital breast tomosynthesis (DBT) picks up a lump or breast changes.

Even though these symptoms can occur with breast cancer, it does not necessarily mean that you have breast cancer if you have these symptoms. But early detection of breast cancer is very important when it comes to treatment options and rates of survival, and that means regular breast cancer screening depending on your age or how at-risk you are.

Why is breast cancer screening so important?

Mammograms are low-dose X-rays of the breast that can help detect a tumor in the breast long before it’s big enough to feel or see. Tumors may be as small as the tip of a pencil (1 mm) or as big as a lime (50 mm).

Regular mammograms are the most reliable way to catch breast cancer early, when they are more easily treated, according to the American Cancer Society. Mammograms are around 87% effective at picking up breast cancer and are more effective in women over the age of 50 or in those who have fatty (not dense) breasts. Because mammograms are not 100% effective it’s important to pay attention to changes in your breasts, because you know your body best.

What is invasive breast cancer?

The term invasive breast cancer refers to breast cancers that have spread into surrounding breast tissue. Most breast cancers are invasive, but there are different types, with the two most common being invasive ductal carcinoma and invasive lobular carcinoma.

Symptoms more specific to invasive breast cancer include:

  • A breast lump or thickening
  • Change in breast color
  • Changes in touch (may feel hard, tender, or warm)
  • An increase in breast size or shape (over a short period)
  • Irritated or itchy breasts
  • Peeling or flaking of the nipple skin
  • Redness or pitting of the breast skin (like the skin of an orange).

Having these symptoms does not mean you have invasive breast cancer as other conditions, such as eczema or infection can cause similar changes, but it is important to see your doctor as soon as you can for an evaluation.

References
  • Markman M. What are the signs and symptoms of breast cancer?
  • Updated September 27, 2021. https://www.cancercenter.com/cancer-types/breast-cancer/symptoms
  • Breast Cancer Screening (PDQ®)–Patient Version. National Cancer Institute. 2021 https://www.cancer.gov/types/breast/patient/breast-screening-pdq
  • Breast Cancer Surveillance Consortium (BCSC). Sensitivity, specificity, and false-negative rate for 1,682,504 screening mammography examinations from 2007-2013. https://www.bcsc-research.org/statistics/screening-performance-benchmarks/screening-sens-spec-false-negative, 2017.

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