Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women in the United States, except for skin cancers. According to American Cancer Society, about 30% (or 1 in 3) of all new female population are affected by breast cancer each year.
What is Breast Cancer?
Breast cancer is a disease in which cells in the breast grow out of control. Breast cancer can begin in different parts of the breast, such as lobules, mamory ducts, and connective tissue (refer image below). Although breast cancer predominantly occurs in women, it can also affect men.
Signs and Symptoms
Even though there are number of symptoms for breast cancer, the following symptoms are quite common and should be checked right away.
A breast lump is the most common sign of breast cancer. Finding one can be unsettling, but most breast lumps turn out to be something other than cancer. Breast cancer lumps tend to be firm and don’t usually cause pain, but there are exceptions.
Some people may have swelling of the breast, collar bone, or armpit, where the lymph nodes are present. If the collar bone or the armpit is swollen, then that may mean the cancer from the breast has traveled to the lymph nodes, and now there is lymph node invasion. If you have swelling, be sure to let your health care provider know as soon as possible.
Changes in Shape, Size, or Appearance
The breast may appear larger, warmer, and heavier than the normal. Please don’t confuse this with lopsided breasts as the fact is just about every woman has one breast slightly smaller or larger than the other, which is normal.
Dimpling of the breast causes the skin to look like pitted and uneven peel of an orange. This is often associated with inflammatory breast cancer, a rare but aggressive form of the disease.
Breast infection may also be a reason for the changes and your doctor may treat it with antibiotics initially. However, if your symptoms don’t improve after a week or so, you should get it checked again.
Breast cancer can sometimes cause inverted nipple, where the point of the breast turns inward or become inverted. Nipple retraction occurs when the tumor attacks the duct behind the nipple, pulling it in. If you notice a change, then get this checked with your medical provider immediately. But nipple retraction can also occur with aging and non-cancerous breast conditions.
Breast cancer may cause changes like redness, dryness, flaky skin over the breast – particularly, the dark area around the nipple. In some cases, thickened skin of the nipple or the breast can also occur, which should be checked immediately.
Nipple discharge is most commonly found in noncancerous lumps in the skin. However, it can be a sign of breast cancer, especially if the discharge is red or bloody. So, if there is discharge in breast other than milk, it is better to get medical attention.
Although most breast cancers do not cause pain in the breast or nipple, SOME DO. More often, women have breast pain or discomfort related to their menstrual cycle and other conditions, such as mastitis, which may cause a more sudden pain. However, if you have breast pain that is severe or persistent, you should be checked by your health care team. This might turn out to be a cancer or a benign condition that needs to be treated.
Women who are between the ages of 20 and 30 should schedule a clinical breast exam every 3 years. Women who are 40 years and above should schedule a mammogram annually regardless of the symptoms discussed above.
Anxiety and fear could be barriers of breast cancer screening, but awareness surrounding breast cancer diagnosis is incredibly important as early detection can catch the disease when it is most treatable.