Signs of Breast Cancer

self exam
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Self-exams are crucial for early detection of lumps or tenderness that may signal breast cancer.

Many people who are diagnosed with breast cancer feel ambushed and surprised. This is because early breast cancer often does not cause pain or other symptoms. However, there are signs of cancer that women and their partners often do find. It is important to check with a doctor if a breast or nipple changes shape, color or discharge.

Signs of breast cancer can include:

  1. Fluid (other than breast milk) coming from the nipple
  2. Change in the way a breast or nipple feels:
    • Nipple tenderness
    • Lumps or thickening in the breast or underarm
  3. Change in the way a breast or nipple looks:
    • Changes in size or shape
    • A nipple that starts to turn inwards or is indented
    • Scaly, red or swollen skin or nipple
    • Breast that is swollen, red and hot to the touch
    • Skin texture like the skin of an orange

Finding Breast Cancer Earlier

There are steps women can take to find breast cancer early, when it generally is easier to treat. Try to establish a regular routine of breast care, including:

  1. Examining your breasts monthly after age 20.

  2. Having a doctor or gynecologist perform a clinical breast exam at least every three years between 20 and 39 years of age.

  3. Scheduling annual mammograms every one to two years from age 40 to 49, depending on your risk profile, and then every year after that.

A mammogram is an imaging study of breast tissue. Regular mammogram screenings make it possible to find breast cancer early in its development. Recent research suggests that breast cancer tumors double in size in 1.7 years on average.

Keep a log or diary of these activities and the results as part of your health records.

Learn More

It is also very important to let your doctor know about any history of cancer in your family, including brothers, sisters, father, mother and grandparents. Some women who are at higher risk for breast cancer might need to be more aggressive about early detection plans, including more frequent clinical exams or mammograms.

Familiarize yourself with the risk factors for breast cancer. Be sure to tell your know about any risk factors you might have, such as previous chest radiation treatments, benign breast lumps or a history of alcohol use. Do what you can on a personal level to reduce your risk, including limiting alcohol and getting enough physical activity.

See the next page for more information about breast cancer.

Related Articles


  • National Breast Cancer Foundation
  • National Cancer Institute
  • "Mammograms Still a Good Idea for Elderly Women," April 21, 2008, HealthDay News
  •  "Breast Cancer Tends to Grow Faster in Younger Women," May 8, 2008, HealthDay News


Written by Madeline Roberts Vann, MPH

Reviewed by Susan L. Luedke, MD
St. Louis Cancer & Breast Institute
St. Louis University Medical Center

Last updated September 2008