17 Subtle Signs You May Have Breast Cancer

A lump isn't the only thing to watch out for.

heart attack after 40

When a woman is examining herself for breast cancer, there's typically only one thing she's on the lookout for: a lump. Unfortunately, that tell-tale sign is just one of the many that can lead to a diagnosis.

While a lump is still the most commonly-reported symptom, a study from the Cancer Research UK found one in six women who are diagnosed with breast cancer report a totally different issue to their doctors. The problem is not everyone books an appointment as quickly as they should once something comes up. "These women are more likely to delay going to the doctor compared to women with breast lump alone," says study author Monica Koo, PhD. "It's crucial that women are aware that a lump is not the only symptom of breast cancer. If they're worried about any breast symptoms, the best thing to do is to get it checked by a doctor as soon as possible."

To make sure you catch a symptom—as subtle as it may be—as early as possible, take a look at these lesser-known signs you may have breast cancer.

There's Dimpling on Your Breast Skin

breast cancer doctor

Noticing some dimpling in the skin of one of your breasts might not seem like a big deal, but it could be a sign of breast cancer, says the Mayo Clinic. The issue—which is called peau d' orange, due to its resemblance of the texture of an orange peel—could be a sign of a more invasive type of breast cancer.


Your Skin Texture Has Changed

woman checking her breasts

While skin resembling an orange peel is one thing, breast cancer could show up with other textural changes as well. According to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, skin that looks scaly and red should also be examined by a doctor.

You Have a Reddish or Purple Nipple

breast cancer check at doctor

Noticing your nipple change colors isn't a great sign. According to Holly Pederson, MD, it could be a symptom of cancer and could also involve flaking and irritation. "Cancer can originate in the nipple," she says. "The nipple will look reddish or purplish; it doesn't look normal. It's actually the tumor cells invading the nipple that cause the skin to look different if it is breast cancer."

You're Experiencing Breast Swelling

breast check

Sure, everyone's breasts swell up a little during their time of the month. But if you your swelling is unexplained, is only on one side, or only affects part of the breast, the change in appearance could be a subtle sign of breast cancer, says the American Cancer Society.

Your Nipple Is Turning Inward

doctor talking to her patient

If your nipple is starting to turn inward when it wasn't retracted before, it could be a sign of inflammatory breast cancer, which is much more aggressive than other types of breast cancer, says the American Cancer Society. Because of that, you should book an appointment with your doctor as soon as possible to discuss any concerning changes.

You're Experiencing Shrinking

woman checking for breast cancer

While swelling is one thing, another sign of breast cancer is quite the opposite: experiencing shrinking, particularly only on one side, says the National Breast Cancer Foundation. It's an easy sign to overlook if you're not paying attention, but it could make all the difference in catching a case of breast cancer early.

Your Nipple Has Thickened

women wearing pink for breast cancer

You probably have a pretty good idea of how your nipples usually look and feel at this point—they've been on your body for quite some time, after all—so if you notice any thickening, it's something to check out. This can also take place in the breast skin as well, says the American Cancer Society.

Your Breast Is Changing Colors

Another symptom of inflammatory breast cancer is when your breast skin turns pink or reddish on more than half the breast—something that can be hard to tell in those with darker skin tones. "Sometimes these changes in coloration can be difficult to find in African Americans and in obese patients with very large breasts," says Ricardo H. Alvarez, MD.

You Have a Red Spot on Your Breast

breast cancer ribbon

Did you notice a random red spot or rash pop up on your breast? Don't just automatically assume it's nothing. It could be a sign of inflammatory breast cancer and should be examined by your doctor, even if it looks as harmless as a minor sunburn.

Your Breast Looks Bruised

breast cancer women

If your breast is starting to have a bruised appearance with no other reason for the discoloration, the Mayo Clinic says it could be a sign of inflammatory breast cancer—something that can easily be confused with an infection.

Your Armpit Lymph Nodes Are Swollen

Armpit lump surprising cancer symptoms

Most people are always looking for bumps in their breasts, but don't forget to check your lymph nodes for swelling, too. "Many patients who end up diagnosed with breast cancer that has spread to the lymph nodes have no symptoms in the breast, no changes in the structure of the breast, but they come in for a consult because they feel something under their arm," says Ricardo H. Alvarez, MD. "This may mean that cancer from the breast has traveled to the lymph nodes, and now there is lymph node invasion."

You're Experiencing Abnormal Tenderness or Pain

woman sad and in pain

You might experience some tenderness around your period, and that's totally normal. If you're experiencing persistent or severe pain, though, and you know it's not due to your menstrual cycle, the American Cancer Society says it should be checked out. Even though breast cancers don't normally cause pain and tenderness, it's still a possibility.

You Have a Hard-to-Heal Sore on Your Breast

worried woman looking in a mirror

Whether it's on your breast or on your nipple, a sore that won't seem to heal is something to pay close attention to. "It may be a sign of Paget's disease of the breast, a rare form of breast cancer," says Ricardo H. Alvarez, MD. "This disease originates in the nipple. It's not usually invasive and is most commonly diagnosed in patients in their 70s and 80s."

The Skin on Your Areola or Breast Looks Irritated

prevent breast cancer

If you're experiencing irritation around your nipple—the areola—or your breast skin, your body could be showing a symptom of breast cancer. Whether that's peeling, crusting, scaling, or flaking, once you see it, you'll be able to tell immediately that something isn't right, says the Mayo Clinic.

You're Experiencing Abnormal Nipple Discharge

woman talking to her doctor

While nipple discharge from breast milk is totally normal, if you're noticing discharge that's clear or bloody, that's something you should get checked out since it could be a sign of breast cancer, says the National Breast Cancer Foundation. If you have discharge that's milky, it could be something else, like hormonal changes or certain medication use.

You Have Enlarged Lymph Nodes Around Your Collarbone

woman collar bones

Your armpits aren't the only subtle place you might experience lymph node swelling due to breast cancer. According to the Mayo Clinic, the same issue can also occur above or below your collarbones—a location most people don't even realize they have a set of lymph nodes in the first place.

Your Breast Shape Has Changed

woman talking to her doctor

There are many different reasons your breasts change their shape over the years, whether it's due to pregnancy or your age. Be aware of these changes and make sure to bring them up to your doctor, though, because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it could also be a subtle warning sign for breast cancer.

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