Doctors doing cancer research
Oncology/Cancer Care

Breast Cancer: The Signs, Symptoms & Stages

10/13/2022

Breast cancer impacts thousands of women each year. There are important signs of breast cancer to look out for. If you or a loved one is diagnosed, there are also different symptoms and stages of breast cancer that mean different things. Read on to learn more about breast cancer.

Breast cancer makes up more than 10% of new cancer diagnoses every year, with thousands of women affected in the U.S. While breast cancer can emerge under the radar with subtle changes in the breast, there are certain signs and symptoms to watch out for. It’s important to regularly monitor for the signs and symptoms of breast cancer in order to get an early diagnosis and treatment. Early treatment can significantly improve the chances of survival from breast cancer.

Continue reading to learn more about the signs, symptoms and stages of breast cancer.

What is breast cancer?

Breast cancer is a disease that develops in the cells of the breast, causing the cells to grow uncontrollably. Breast cancer growths or tumors can develop in different parts of the breast. Cancer cells that break off of tumors can then spread to other parts of the body, causing complications.

The most common type of breast cancer is invasive ductal carcinoma, which starts in the breast ducts or tubes that carry breast milk to the nipple. Other less common types of breast cancer include lobular carcinoma (cancer of the milk-producing glands), inflammatory breast cancer (characterized by redness and swelling of the breast) and breast cancer in men.

Breast cancer that has spread to the surrounding breast tissue is called invasive breast cancer. On the other hand, breast cancer that remains in its original location is called in situ breast cancer.

Signs and symptoms of breast cancer

Signs and symptoms of breast cancer are not always apparent early on. While an unusual lump is a common sign that women first notice, not all lumps indicate breast cancer. In some cases, you might not notice any signs or symptoms. The tumor may be too small to feel, or the cancer has not spread to other parts of the breast or body.

The signs and symptoms of breast cancer can vary depending on the individual. Breast cancer signs and symptoms may include:

  • A lump or area of swelling in the breast, armpit, or upper chest
  • A lump that feels like a small pea
  • Changes in the size or shape of the breast
  • Discharge (unusual fluid) from the nipple that appears bloody, occurs in one breast or comes on suddenly
  • Crusting or redness on the breast or nipple
  • Redness or swelling of the breast that is accompanied by dimpling (resembles the skin of an orange)
  • Unusual pain in the breast that does not go away
  • Changes in the contour of the skin on the breast, such as dimpling or puckering
  • Irritation on the skin of the breast, such as scaliness, redness and inflammation

As some people don’t experience any symptoms at all, regular screenings and mammograms are recommended. Always consult a healthcare provider if you experience any new or unusual changes to your breast that concern you.

Stages of breast cancer

The breast cancer stage reflects how severe the cancer is. Breast cancer staging is influenced by different factors, such as the location and size of the tumor, whether the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes or other parts of the body, whether the cancer responds to estrogen and progesterone hormones and how likely the cancer is to spread.

Breast cancer stages range from stage 0 to 4. The higher the stage, the more the cancer has spread.

Stage 0: Also known as carcinoma in situ, stage 0 breast cancer means cancer cells are present but have not spread from their original location.

Stage 1: In this stage, a small tumor may be present with or without signs of spread to the lymph nodes.

Stage 2: Breast cancer in this stage indicates a tumor larger than stage 1 breast cancer that may have spread to one to three nearby lymph nodes.

Stage 3: In this stage, the tumor is larger than stage 2 and has spread to several lymph nodes but not other parts of the body.

Stage 4: Stage 4 breast cancer signifies that the cancer has spread to other parts of the body, such as the lungs, liver or bones. This advanced stage of breast cancer is called metastatic breast cancer.

The breast cancer stage can include different factors specific to an individual. Certain biomarkers, such as estrogen receptors, progesterone receptors and the production of the HER2 protein in the tumor, can influence the type of treatment recommended.

Inside Rx is here to help

If you or a loved one is affected by breast cancer, it’s important to think about your goals and what treatment means for you. There are different treatment options available that vary depending on the breast cancer type and stage. These treatment options include surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, hormone therapy and other medications.

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