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Breast Cancer Symptoms That Have Nothing To Do With Feeling a Lump

Feb 04, 2022 10:00AM ● By Boitumelo Masihleho

Organized annually on February 4th and led by the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC), World Cancer Day is a global initiative that aims to inspire greater awareness of cancer and action in better preventing, detecting, and treating the disease. This year’s campaign theme ‘Close the Care Gap’ recognizes the power of knowledge and challenges assumptions.  We’ve previously focused on cervical cancer and its effects on Black women and on this World Cancer Day we are putting a spotlight on one of the most common cancers - breast cancer.

Black and white women in the United States are diagnosed with breast cancer at about the same rate, but Black women are 40 percent more likely to die of it. According to the American Cancer Society, Black women have the highest breast cancer mortality rate of any U.S. racial or ethnic group. In women under age 40, breast cancer is more common in Black women, and Black women are also more likely to die from breast cancer at any age. This makes it more important than ever to know the symptoms of breast cancer. 

The most telltale sign of breast cancer is a lump in the breast. Irregularities, like lumps and bumps, are, after all, the most common thing women are told to keep an eye on and feel out for during a breast self-exam. But what about breast cancer symptoms that aren't lumps? According to a 2017 study published in the Cancer Epidemiology, one in six women who discovered their cancer themselves caught it based on a less-obvious breast cancer symptom, like nipple abnormalities and weight loss.

Nipple changes

Some breast cancers will cause what’s called nipple inversion or retraction, in which the nipple turns inward. Typically, that’s because a mass is growing inside the breast and changes its shape. In recent research, 7% of the women who were diagnosed with breast cancer reported nipple abnormalities. A change in the texture or color of the nipple might also be a sign of cancer. Look for a scaly, itchy rash or dimpling. The nipple might also turn red or purple. Fluids that aren’t breast milk might leak out of your nipples. That fluid can be clear, milky, or blood-tinged. It will leak out on its own when lightly expressed. Hairy nipples on women have nothing to do with cancer and are totally normal—one in three women have nipple hair.

Breast skin changes

A change in the color or texture of the skin on your breast can be a sign of breast cancer. Skin changes aren’t necessarily cancer, but they can sometimes warn of a rare type of breast cancer, like Paget disease or inflammatory breast cancer.

 Look for these types of changes:

  • scaling or flakes

  • crusting

  • dimpling or puckering, which causes the skin to become textured like an orange peel

  • swelling

  • redness

  • bleeding

  • sores that don’t heal

  • itching

  • change in skin color

  • visible veins in the breast, which can be a sign of increased blood flow to cancer

A few other skin conditions can affect your breasts, including, rashes, moles, and skin infections.

Skin changes such as rashes and skin infections should clear up within a few days. If they don’t go away, have your doctor take a look.

Breast or nipple pain

Many things can cause pain in your breasts or nipples, like PMS, pregnancy, or even menopause. But if you notice persistent pain along with other breast cancer symptoms, it’s important to report the experience to your doctor. Cancer that is growing can stretch the tissue and cause pain. 

Change in breast size or swelling

Sometimes when you have cancer, one breast will grow larger than the other. Look for a sudden change in breast size or a breast that continues to grow. Inflammatory breast cancer often starts with red, inflamed skin that swells as cancer cells clog the vessels that carry lymph fluid. This is an extremely rare form of breast cancer, but it does happen.

Changes that aren't related to your breasts

According to the study published in Cancer Epidemiology, back pain, neck pain, and unexplained weight loss were all listed as other breast cancer symptoms that led women to seek medical care and ultimately get diagnosed with breast cancer.

Important lessons

Black women seem to be most susceptible to aggressive forms of breast cancer, such as triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC), which does not respond to hormone-targeted cancer therapies, and inflammatory breast cancer (IBC), which tends to grow and spread quickly, according to the American Cancer Society. 

More progress needs to be made to improve outcomes for Black women with breast cancer. 

We’ve only recently been able to decipher some of the underlying biologies to explain the higher incidence of aggressive tumors in Black women and to identify biomarkers that could ultimately inform personalized therapies and improve outcomes for Black women diagnosed with breast cancer. Revising screening guidelines might prove beneficial when it comes to catching breast cancer earlier in Black women.

While we have made significant progress in understanding the molecular drivers of breast cancer, most studies and clinical trials are conducted on White women. In fact, from 1990 to 2010, between 80% and 90% of people with breast cancer who enrolled in practice-changing clinical trials were non-Hispanic white people. Expanding Black women’s participation in research is critical.


Women’s Health

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 Boitumelo Masihleho is a South African digital content creator. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts from Rhodes University in Journalism and Media Studies and Politics and International Studies. She's an experienced multimedia journalist who is committed to writing balanced, informative and interesting stories on a number of topics. Boitumelo has her own YouTube channel where she shares her love for affordable beauty and lifestyle content. 

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