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Breast Cancer Symptoms and Signs: What to Look Out For

Written by Galina
Last updated February 28, 2023
Breast Cancer Symptoms and Signs: What to Look Out For

Breast Cancer Symptoms and Signs

Although having regular screening tests for breast cancer is important, mammograms do not find every breast cancer. This means it's also important for you to know what your breasts normally look and feel like, so you'll be aware of any changes in your breasts.

The most common symptom of breast cancer is a new lump or mass (although most breast lumps are not cancer). A painless, hard mass that has irregular shape is more likely to be cancer, but breast cancers can be also soft, round, tender, or even painful.

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Why Do My Breasts Hurt? 9 Possible Causes of Breast Pain

Doctors call breast pain “mastalgia.” Shooting or burning pain, soreness, swelling, heaviness, tightness - it's very common to wonder if what you're feeling might be a sign of breast cancer.

It's important to find the cause of it. But know that pain in one or both of your breasts isn’t a sign of breast cancer. Breast tenderness and other discomfort can happen for lots of different reasons. This article examines the most common ones.


Cyclical Breast Pain

Your breast pain is likely cyclical -- meaning it's linked to your reproductive cycle -- if you have some of these signs:

· The pain feels achy and heavy

· Your breasts swell or seem lumpy

· Both breasts are affected, mainly the upper and outer areas. Sometimes, the pain can radiate to your armpits

· You're in your childbearing years (around your 20s and 30s), or you're approaching menopause

To help ease cyclical breast pain, your doctor might recommend you take oral contraceptives, or they may tweak the dosage you already take. They might also suggest you cut back on caffeine, or try over-the-counter pain relievers like acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or naproxen sodium.


Hormone Levels

Most breast pain seems to relate to the levels of two hormones - estrogen and progesterone. Doctors don’t know what triggers breast pain. It can happen at different times in your reproductive life, such as during:

· Puberty

· Your monthly menstrual period or when you have premenstrual syndrome(PMS)

· In the first trimester of pregnancy

· During breastfeeding. Sometimes a blocked milk duct can get infected, a painful condition called mastitis. It needs to be treated immediately with antibiotics.

· During menopause

Sore nipples can be a sign of beginning of your menstrual period. That pain, along with other breast pain should ease once you have your period. During pregnancy your nipples might get tender and swell.



Breastfeeding itself can cause nipple pain. It may feel like a sharp pinch. It may also cause your nipples to crack and bleed. You can ease the soreness with ointments, or even rubbing a few drops of milk over your nipples to soften them before you start feeding.


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Fibrocystic Breast Changes

This is likely linked to hormones, as well. Fibrous tissue (breast tissue that's scar-like) and cysts (fluid-filled sacs) form in your breasts. It may be painful, but it's normal and usually harmless.

About half of women in their 20s to 50s get it. You don't need treatment unless your symptoms are severe.


Fatty Acid Imbalance

These acids are found in vegetable and animal oils and fat. If there's an imbalance of them in your cells, your breasts may be more sensitive to hormones.

To reduce your symptoms, try cutting down the animal fat and sugar in your diet.

Taking evening primrose oil also helps to correct fatty acid imbalances.


Noncyclical Breast Pain

Breast pain also can be triggered by reasons other than hormones. It might be linked to another issue if:

· Your pain feels like soreness, burning, or tightness

· Discomfort is constant or unpredictable

· Pain seems to affect one breast in a particular area

· You've passed menopause


Extramammary Breast Pain

This pain feels like it's originating from your breasts. But it’s, radiating from somewhere else, often the chest wall.

If you strain your pectoralis major muscle (that's located beneath and around your breasts) it also can feel like your breasts are the source of the pain. This can result from activities like lifting, raking, and shoveling.

Usually, the pain gets better with rest, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory meds (NSAIDs), and sometimes cortisone injections.



Though mastitis usually occurs in women who are breastfeeding, it can happen at any age. If your clothes rub against your nipples, that also can irritate them and can let in bacteria that may lead to infection.

Thrush - an yeast infection of the breast and nipple - can feel like a stabbing, shooting, or burning in your nipples. You might also see redness, or dry and flaky skin.



Trauma or surgery to a particular area of your breast can cause breast pain. Sometimes an injury can lead to a blood clot formation and vein flow obstruction and swelling.



Certain prescription drugs, as well as hormone medications, can cause breast pain. These include some heart medications and psychiatric drugs.


Skin Conditions

If you have skin irritation called dermatitis, eczema and contact dermatitis you might have a rash or swelling around your nipple.

See your doctor to find out what might cause these skin problems and how you can treat them.


Support Issues

Women with large, heavy breasts can suffer pain from stretched ligaments and breast tissue. Pain can be not only in your breasts, but in your back, neck, and shoulders, as well. Reduction surgery can help, but it, too, can cause pain if tissue is damaged during the operation.

A supportive, well-made bra can help keep your breasts in place. Wearing a sports bra to bed and when exercising can also help.


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Risk factors

A breast cancer risk factor makes it more likely you'll get breast cancer. But having even several breast cancer risk factors doesn't necessarily mean you'll develop breast cancer. Many women who develop breast cancer have no known risk factors other than simply being women.

Factors that are associated with an increased risk of breast cancer include:

· Being female. Women are much more likely than men are to develop breast cancer.

· Increasing age. Your risk of breast cancer increases as you age.

· A personal history of breast conditions. If you've had a breast biopsy that found lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS) or atypical hyperplasia of the breast, you have an increased risk of breast cancer.

· A personal history of breast cancer. If you've had breast cancer in one breast, you have an increased risk of developing cancer in the other breast.

· A family history of breast cancer. If your mother, sister or daughter was diagnosed with breast cancer, particularly at a young age, your risk of breast cancer is increased. Still, the majority of people diagnosed with breast cancer have no family history of the disease.

· Inherited genes that increase cancer risk. Certain gene mutations that increase the risk of breast cancer can be passed from parents to children. The most well-known gene mutations are referred to as BRCA1 and BRCA2. These genes can greatly increase your risk of breast cancer and other cancers, but they don't make cancer inevitable.

· Radiation exposure. If you received radiation treatments to your chest as a child or young adult, your risk of breast cancer is increased.

· Obesity. Being obese increases your risk of breast cancer.

· Beginning your period at a younger age. Beginning your period before age 12 increases your risk of breast cancer.

· Beginning menopause at an older age. If you began menopause at an older age, you're more likely to develop breast cancer.

· Having your first child at an older age. Women who give birth to their first child after age 30 may have an increased risk of breast cancer.

· Having never been pregnant. Women who have never been pregnant have a greater risk of breast cancer than do women who have had one or more pregnancies.

· Postmenopausal hormone therapy. Women who take hormone therapy medications that combine estrogen and progesterone to treat the signs and symptoms of menopause have an increased risk of breast cancer. The risk of breast cancer decreases when women stop taking these medications.

· Drinking alcohol. Drinking alcohol increases the risk of breast cancer.


Breast cancer risk reduction for women with an average risk

To perform a breast self-exam, use a methodical approach that ensures you palpate your entire breast. For instance, imagine that your breasts are divided into equal wedges, like pieces of a pie, and stroke your fingers along each piece in toward your nipple.

Making changes in your daily life may help reduce your risk of breast cancer.

Try to:

· Ask your doctor about breast cancer screening. Discuss with your doctor when to begin breast cancer screening exams and tests, such as clinical breast exams and mammograms.

· Talk to your doctor about the benefits and risks of screening. Together, you can decide what breast cancer screening strategies are right for you.

· Become familiar with your breasts through breast self-exam. Women may choose to become familiar with their breasts by occasionally inspecting their breasts during a breast self-exam for breast awareness. If there is a new change, lumps, or other unusual signs in your breasts, talk to your doctor promptly.

Breast awareness can't prevent breast cancer, but it may help you to better understand the normal changes that your breasts undergo and identify any unusual signs and symptoms.

· Limit the amount of alcohol you drink to no more than one drink a day if you choose to drink.

· Exercise most days of the week at least 30 minutes of exercise on most days of the week. If you haven't been active lately, ask your doctor whether it's OK and start slowly.

· Limit postmenopausal hormone therapy. Combination hormone therapy may increase the risk of breast cancer. Talk with your doctor about the benefits and risks of hormone therapy. To reduce the risk of breast cancer, use the lowest dose of hormone therapy possible for the shortest amount of time.

· Maintain a healthy weight. If your weight is healthy, work to maintain that weight. If you need to lose weight, ask your doctor about healthy strategies to accomplish this. Reduce the number of calories you eat each day and slowly increase the amount of exercise.

· Choose a healthy diet. Women who eat a Mediterranean diet supplemented with extra-virgin olive oil and mixed nuts may have a reduced risk of breast cancer. The Mediterranean diet focuses mostly on plant-based foods, such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts. People who follow the Mediterranean diet choose healthy fats, such as olive oil, over butter and fish instead of red meat.


Breast cancer risk reduction for women with a high risk

If your doctor has assessed your family history and determined that you have other factors, such as a precancerous breast condition, that increase your risk of breast cancer, you may discuss options to reduce your risk, such as:

Preventive medications (chemoprevention). Estrogen-blocking medications, such as selective estrogen receptor modulators and aromatase inhibitors, reduce the risk of breast cancer in women with a high risk of the disease.

These medications have a risk of side effects, so doctors reserve these medications for women who have a very high risk of breast cancer. Discuss the benefits and risks with your doctor.


When do people get a metastatic breast cancer diagnosis?

Metastatic breast cancer can occur at different points:

Metastatic breast cancer: About 6% of women and 9% of men have metastatic breast cancer when they're first diagnosed with breast cancer.

Distant recurrence: Most commonly, metastatic breast cancer is diagnosed after the original breast cancer treatment. A recurrence refers to the cancer coming back and spreading to a different part of the body, which can happen even years after the original diagnosis and treatment.


What's the difference between metastatic breast cancer and stage 4 breast cancer?

These two terms mean essentially the same thing. Breast cancer classified as stage 4 has spread outside the breast, or metastasized, to other parts of the body.