Breast Cancer Symptoms

If you’re concerned about your breast cancer risk, understanding the symptoms of breast cancer is crucial to taking a proactive approach to prevention. Though breast lumps are not always cancerous, having them promptly examined by a health professional is good practice.

To recognize the symptoms of breast cancer, it’s first crucial to know how to recognize normal, healthy changes in your breasts.

Normal Breast Changes

Understanding normal breast changes can help prevent confusion when abnormalities occur in the size, shape or feel of your breasts.

Hormonal fluctuations can cause breasts to grow and change. These can occur at almost any stage of life, including during:

  • Puberty: At puberty, the breasts enlarge with rising estrogen levels. By age 16, on average, they mature and most of the breast is capable of producing milk.
  • The menstrual cycle: During menstruation, dramatic changes occur with changing estrogen and progesterone levels. Just prior to menstruation, the breasts become firm and tender. Following menstruation, they soften and are less tender.
  • Pregnancy: During pregnancy, in preparation for lactation, milk-producing cells proliferate and duct development increases.
  • Childbirth: Changing hormone levels surrounding childbirth can cause the breasts to enlarge.
  • Menopause: In older women, the glandular tissue shrinks and is replaced by fat.

In addition, fat content in the breasts fluctuates with weight changes.

Abnormal Breast Changes

The breasts’ size, shape and feel can change over time due to hormonal fluctuations, pregnancy and aging, which is why it’s so important to understand when these changes signal a problem.

Healthy physical changes will affect both breasts similarly. Certain changes in one gland and not the other, however–such as a lump, breast tenderness and nipple discharge–may be symptoms of breast cancer. If you detect any of these changes, contact your health professional immediately.

Breast Cancer Symptoms

Breast cancer symptoms include:

  • Enlarged lymph nodes in the armpit
  • Lumps, dimples or swelling in the breast
  • Nipple discharge
  • Persistent breast tenderness
  • Sudden prominent veins at the surface of the breast
  • Suddenly inverted nipple or nipple pain.

Breast lumps are typically firm structures that may or may not be painful. Any armpit lump, enlarged lymph nodes or breast swelling should be reported to your doctor, as well as any skin discoloration or texture change.

Importance of Self-Exams and Consultations

Most breast cancer symptoms can be detected visually or with regular self-exams. While breast cancer cannot be prevented with absolute certainty, early detection of cancer warning signs and early diagnosis dramatically increases the likelihood of successful treatment.

A regular program of self-exams, mammograms and physical examinations by your doctor is your best defense against the disease spreading.


The American Cancer Society. Breast cancer facts and figures 2009-2010. Retrieved October 11, 2010, from

National Breast Cancer Foundation. Breast cancer symptoms. Retrieved October 13, 2010, from