What are breast cancer signs and symptoms?

A sign is a presentation that can be noticed – for example, a lump in the breast which can be discovered with a breast check. A symptom is a feeling such as pain or tenderness.

Some breast cancers are detected before they lead to signs and symptoms, while other types of breast cancers can’t be detected with mammograms.

How does breast cancer produce signs and symptoms?

Breast cancer, which begins when cells grow abnormally and the form tumours in the breast, can cause different types of signs and symptoms.

Signs and symptoms of breast cancer vary depending on the size and location of the tumour – as well as the speed at which it is growing.

Diagnostic tests and procedures for breast cancer include physical examination, mammogram, biopsy, ultrasound and breast MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan. Blood tests and other scans may be ordered if signs and symptoms suggest the cancer may have spread outside of the breast area.

Staging describes the size and severity of the cancer and helps to inform the diagnostic and treatment approach. Early breast cancer stages include Stage 0 (pre-invasive cancer) and Stages 1, 2A and 2B. Advanced or secondary breast cancer stages include Stages 2B, 3A-C and 4.

What are the common general signs and symptoms of breast cancer?

It should be noted that many breast cancer signs and symptoms are also associated with other diseases and conditions and may not necessarily indicate breast cancer.

The most common sign of breast cancer is a lump or mass in the breast. This can be hard or soft, with or without accompanying pain. Not all lumps in the breast are cancerous, so if a lump is detected it’s important for patients to visit their doctor for a proper diagnosis.

Other common signs of breast cancer include a rash around the nipples, discharge from one or both nipples, skin that has started to peel or flake, nipple retraction, and pain or swelling in the armpits or breast area.

Masses can also be detected under the arm or around the collarbone if the breast cancer has spread to lymph nodes. This may happen before the mass in the breast can be felt.

If patients are experiencing any breast cancer signs and symptoms, or if they suspect something is not quite right, they should visit their doctor.

How is breast cancer diagnosed?

The recommended approach for investigating breast symptoms is the ‘triple test’.

What is the triple test?

The triple test includes the following steps:

  1. Clinical breast examination
  2. Imaging tests: mammogram, ultrasound or MRI. The test used depends on the woman’s age and breast density.
  3. Biopsy: if either of the first two tests indicates an abnormal area, cells or tissue will be taken from that area and sent to a pathologist

The earlier breast cancer is detected, the more likely it is that treatment can successfully remove the cancer and prevent it from reoccurring.