Breast Cancer: Symptoms & Signs

  • Medical Author:
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

Medically Reviewed on 9/10/2019

Early symptoms and signs of breast cancer are typically not recognizable; this is why screening mammography is valuable to detect cancers at a very early stage. Even larger breast cancers do not always produce symptoms and signs. When symptoms do occur, the most common symptom is

Other possible symptoms include

Certain types of cancers known as inflammatory breast cancers may produce redness and warmth of the affected breast, but these are not common signs and symptoms of breast cancer. Breast pain is also not a typical symptom, but breast or nipple pain may occur in certain cases.

Breast cancer causes and risk factors

While there are many risk factors that increase the chance of developing breast cancer, the exact reason for the development of cancer is unknown. A family history of breast cancer and the presence of certain inherited genes (for example, BRCA1, BRCA2) increase the risk for developing breast cancer.

What are breast cancer risk factors? How do you get breast cancer?

Some of the breast cancer risk factors can be modified (such as alcohol consumption) while others cannot be influenced (such as age). It is important to discuss these risks with a health care provider when starting new therapies (for example, postmenopausal hormone therapy).

Several risk factors are inconclusive (such as deodorants), while in other areas, the risk is being even more clearly defined (such as alcohol use).

The following are risk factors for breast cancer:

  • Age: The chances of breast cancer increase as one gets older.
  • Family history: The risk of breast cancer is higher among women who have relatives with the disease. Having a close relative with the disease (sister, mother, daughter) doubles a woman's risk.
  • Personal history: Having a breast cancer diagnosis in one breast increases the risk of cancer in the other breast or the chance of an additional cancer in the original breast.
  • Women diagnosed with certain benign (non-cancerous) breast conditions have an increased risk of breast cancer. These include atypical hyperplasia, a condition in which there is abnormal proliferation of breast cells but no cancer has developed.
  • Menstruation: Women who started their menstrual cycle at a younger age (before 12) or went through menopause later (after 55) have a slightly increased risk.
  • Breast tissue: Women with dense breast tissue (as documented by mammogram) have a higher risk of breast cancer.
  • Race: White women have a higher risk of developing breast cancer, but African-American women tend to have more tumors that are aggressive when they do develop breast cancer.
  • Exposure to previous chest radiation or use of diethylstilbestrol increases the risk of breast cancer.
  • Having no children or the first child after age 30 increases the risk of breast cancer.
  • Breastfeeding for one and a half to two years might slightly lower the risk of breast cancer.
  • Being overweight or obese increases the risk of breast cancer both in pre- and postmenopausal women but at different rates.
  • Use of oral contraceptives in the last 10 years increases the risk of breast cancer slightly.
  • Using combined hormone therapy after menopause increases the risk of breast cancer.
  • Alcohol consumption increases the risk of breast cancer, and this seems to be proportional to the amount of alcohol used. A recent meta-analysis reviewing the research on alcohol use and breast cancer concluded that all levels of alcohol use are associated with an increased risk for breast cancer. This includes even light drinking.
  • Exercise seems to lower the risk of breast cancer.
  • Genetic risk factors: The most common causes are mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes (breast cancer and ovarian cancer genes). Inheriting a mutated gene from a parent means that one has a significantly higher risk of developing breast cancer.

Related Symptoms & Signs

Other breast cancer symptoms and signs

  • Breast Lump or Mass
  • Breast Pain
  • Breast Swelling
  • Change in Breast Size or Shape
  • Dimpling or Puckering of the Breast Skin
  • Bloody Nipple Discharge
  • Lump in the Underarm Area
  • Nipple Pain
  • Nipple Inversion
  • Recent Breast Asymmetry
  • Redness of the Breast Skin
  • Thickening of the Breast Skin

United States. National Cancer Institute. "Breast Cancer." <http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/types/breast>.

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Medically Reviewed on 9/10/2019
References
United States. National Cancer Institute. "Breast Cancer." <http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/types/breast>.
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