Cancer can be a tough concept to visualize. Think of breast cancer, however, and many people picture a lump. It may be time to broaden your mental image of the disease.
While a lump is the most common symptom of breast cancer, cancer varies considerably—and a recent report suggests that in the absence of lumps, women are less likely to take the other signs as seriously. This past fall, in a study of the symptoms of 2,300 women who were recently diagnosed with breast cancer, researchers from University College London found one in six developed the disease with signs other than lumps. In those cases, women often delayed reporting symptoms to their physicians.
Ignorance may play a role in women’s decisions to keep non-lump symptoms to themselves. Many women may be unaware that breast cancer doesn’t always come with a lump. Here are some warning signs of breast cancer you may not have been aware of:
- Inflamed appearance—Redness in the breast is a potential indicator of breast cancer.
- Changes in size—Swelling or shrinkage of any area of the breast is worth mentioning to a physician.
- Changes in nipples—If they appear to be turned inward or produce a clear or bloody fluid, talk to your doctor.
- Changes in shape—Breasts are rarely perfectly shaped or symmetrical, but if a change occurred recently, a physician may want to investigate.
- Troubling texture—Breast skin that feels hard, scaly or pitted is a red flag.
- Unexplained discomfort—Bring unusual breast or nipple pain to a healthcare provider’s attention.
Now that you know the many ways breast cancer can manifest, spread the word to the women in your life. It’s time to think beyond the lump.
The Importance of Self-awareness
What is on your monthly to-do list? Paying bills, helping with your children’s after-school activities and keeping your projects at work on schedule are probably staples. There is another item you may want to add to the inventory: checking your breasts for possible symptoms of cancer.
Evidence that breast self-exams (BSEs) increase breast cancer detection is lacking. However, if you don’t know how your breasts normally look and feel, how can you determine if something is out of the ordinary? BSEs can be a useful way to get to know your breasts so you can identify changes—lumps or otherwise—your healthcare provider should know about. If you’ve never performed a BSE, these tips can help you do it like a pro:
- Feel it out. A BSE requires two senses: touch and sight. For the tactile portion of the exam, lie on your back and alternately examine each breast by moving your fingers gently across it, pressing down as you go. Don’t forget to gently squeeze the nipples to check for discharge.
- Look in the mirror. You’ve used your fingers to feel for abnormalities. Next, use your eyes to look for them. Scrutinize your breasts with your arms by your side and in the air.
- Take heed of timing. The National Institutes of Health recommends performing a BSE three to five days after your period begins, when they’re less likely to be lumpy.
- Get your annual mammogram! Some forms of cancer do not present with symptoms. A mammogram is one of the best ways to stay on top of your breast health.