Six early signs of breast cancer you shouldn’t ignore

Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer in the UK and affects one in seven women at some point in their lifetime. Breast cancer can affect men too, though it is much less common. The signs are very similar in men and finding a lump in your breast is the most common early symptom of breast cancer. However, it isn’t the only sign to look out for. Here are six signs you shouldn’t ignore:

1. A hard, painless lump

Finding a lump in your breast can be alarming but it doesn’t necessarily mean you have cancer. A lump is more likely to be something else, such as a benign cyst or a blocked milk duct. Your breasts change over time with age and hormonal fluctuations but if you’ve been told you’re high risk or if the lump has been there for more than one menstrual cycle then it’s a good idea to get it checked out. 

2. Changes in the shape or size of one breast

Sometimes you might not feel a lump but the entire breast or an area of it can swell up, making it look bigger than your other breast. Cancer can also cause one of your breasts to shrink or change shape. Most women’s breasts are slightly different sizes to each other but if you notice a change then see your GP.

3. Dimpled skin on part of the breast

Dimpling of the skin on part of your breast, making it look or feel like an orange skin, is another sign to look out for. It can be caused by a tumour pulling on the skin and could be a symptom of inflammatory breast cancer. This is an aggressive form of cancer so if you notice dimpled skin on your breast you should see your GP immediately. 

4. Changes to one or both nipples

Look out for changes to your nipples. If one or both of them becomes crusty and sore it’s best to get it checked. You may notice discharge from your nipples when you’re not breastfeeding or inverted or flat nipples that may start pointing inwards. If your nipples are naturally inverted it isn’t a cause for concern unless you notice a change. 

5. A red or hot area on the breast

Inflammatory breast cancer can cause redness or a hot area to develop on your skin. The skin may even look purplish or bruised without an obvious cause and the discolouration may not fade. This can also be a symptom of mastitis, an infection caused by a blocked milk duct that can happen if you’re breastfeeding.

6. Lumps in the armpit

Breast cancer can also affect the lymph nodes in your armpit and collarbone area. Lymph nodes are glands that contain lymphatic fluid. They collect waste products and potentially harmful cells and drain them into your blood so they can eventually be removed by your kidneys or liver. Cancer cells can break away from the breast and the first place they will move to is usually the lymph nodes in the same armpit as your affected breast. If you notice hard lumps in this area don’t panic as it could be caused by something unrelated but get it checked just to be sure. 

Checking for signs

Make time to get familiar with the way your breasts look and feel so you’re more likely to notice any changes quickly. It’s a good idea to perform a self-examination about once a month, especially if you’re high-risk. Check your breasts a few days after your period ends when they tend to be less tender and lumpy. Start by looking at yourself in a mirror and see if you notice any visual changes. Note how they look with your hands on your hips and with your arms raised over your head. Feel all over each breast and armpit with flat fingers and a firm, smooth touch. If you notice any lumps or bumps the first time you do this, don’t worry. Unless you have any additional signs as detailed above, make a note of where you felt the lump and wait until your next monthly examination to see if there are any changes.

Risk factors

Some people are more at risk of developing breast cancer than others. If your mother, sister or daughter has been diagnosed with breast cancer then your risk doubles. If more than one close relative has been diagnosed, or if they were diagnosed under the age of 50, then your risk will be even higher. If this is the case your GP can refer you to a breast clinic or genetic clinic to be assessed. Some people have harmful mutations in their BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes, which can increase their risk of breast cancer. It doesn’t mean you’ll definitely develop cancer but you should be more aware of the signs and have regular breast screening. 

There are other risk factors related to your age and lifestyle. Most cases of breast cancer occur in women aged over 50. If you are overweight, a smoker, drink a lot of alcohol or take hormone replacement treatment, your risk is slightly higher.

What to do if you’re worried

Most people who find a lump or have one of the other symptoms listed above don’t have cancer. If you notice one or a combination of signs, talk to your GP. They’ll examine your breasts and refer you to a breast clinic for further tests if necessary, which could include a mammogram or ultrasound scan.