The most common symptoms of early-stage breast cancer are new lumps, changes to skin texture or color, dimpling, and swelling.

According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), the most common sign of breast cancer is a new lump or mass in the breast. People should become familiar with the typical look and feel of their breasts to detect any changes early on.

Breast cancer can develop in males and females, but due to differences in breast tissue, the disease is much less common in males.

Below, we outline some early indications of breast cancer. We also describe the various types and treatment options. Finally, we look into some benign conditions people may mistake for breast cancer.

A note about sex and gender

Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms “male,” “female,” or both to refer to sex assigned at birth. Click here to learn more.

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A new mass or lump in breast tissue is the most common sign of breast cancer.

The ACS reports that these lumps are usually hard, irregular in shape, and painless. However, some breast cancer tumors may be soft, round, and tender to the touch.

The following breast changes can be symptoms of breast cancer:

Many of these changes can also result from other noncancerous health issues.

However, if a person notices any changes in their breast tissue, they should see a doctor as soon as possible. It is important to rule out cancer as a possible cause.

Explore our dedicated cancer hub here.

There are many different types of breast cancer.

Each form of breast cancer develops in a different part of the breast and can affect different tissue types.

Since many breast cancers cause no symptoms, people should attend regular screenings. This can help identify the disease in its early stages.

Below, we outline the types of breast cancer and their symptoms.

Lobular carcinoma in situ

Lobular carcinoma in situ refers to an area of abnormal cells confined to the breast’s milk-producing glands.

Because these cells do not spread to surrounding tissues, doctors do not typically consider lobular carcinoma situ to be cancer. However, it can increase the chances of developing other types of invasive breast cancer.

This condition rarely causes symptoms. Doctors typically find lobular carcinoma in situ during a breast biopsy for another problem in the breast area. In some cases, tiny white specs of calcium called microcalcifications appear on a routine mammogram.

Invasive lobular carcinoma

This develops in the breast’s lobules — glands that can produce milk — and invades nearby breast tissue. In some cases, it may spread to other parts of the body.

In the early stages, invasive lobular carcinoma may not cause symptoms. Or, a person may experience:

  • thickening or hardening of breast tissue, rather than a distinct lump
  • an area of fullness or swelling in the breast
  • a change in the texture of the breast’s skin
  • the nipple turning inward

Ductal carcinoma in situ

Ductal carcinoma in situ refers to an area of abnormal cells on one milk duct.

When a person receives this diagnosis, the cells have not invaded the surrounding breast tissue. However, having ductal carcinoma in situ can increase the risk of developing invasive breast cancer later.

This condition generally does not cause symptoms. Doctors find 90% of cases through mammography. Rarely, a person may notice a lump in the breast or some discharge from the nipple.

Invasive ductal carcinoma

This is the most common type of breast cancer, accounting for around 80% of cases.

Invasive ductal carcinoma begins in the cells that line the breast’s milk ducts and invades surrounding breast tissue. Over time, cancer can spread to nearby lymph nodes and other tissues.

In its early stages, invasive ductal carcinoma may not cause symptoms. For some people, the first indication is a new lump or mass within the breast.

People with this type of cancer may also experience:

  • swelling of all or part of the breast
  • pain in the breast or nipple
  • irritation or dimpling of the breast’s skin
  • redness, scaling, or thickening of the nipple or skin
  • nipple discharge
  • the nipple turning inward
  • a lump in the underarm area

Less common breast cancers

Some less common types of breast cancer include:

Males have small amounts of breast tissue, which does not develop during puberty. Rarely, cancer can form in this tissue.

The ACS estimates that in 2022, doctors in the United States will diagnose about 2,710 breast cancer cases in males. Approximately 530 males will die from the disease in the same year.

Males with breast cancer may experience:

  • a lump or swelling that is often painless
  • nipple retraction
  • discharge from a nipple
  • dimpling or puckering of the skin of the breast
  • redness or scaling of the nipple or skin of the breast

An individual’s risk of developing breast cancer depends on many factors. The two most prominent factors are being female and getting older.

Unchangeable risk factors include:

  • Getting older: The risk of breast cancer increases with age. Breast cancer is most common over the age of 50.
  • Specific genetic mutations: People with the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genetic mutations are at a higher risk of breast cancer.
  • Having dense breasts: Individuals who have dense breasts have more connective tissue than fatty tissue, which can make it harder to see tumors on a mammogram.
  • Medical history: People who have had breast cancer once are more likely to get it a second time. Other diseases, including atypical hyperplasia or lobular carcinoma in situ, are also risk factors.
  • Family history of breast or ovarian cancer: People with a family history of breast cancer are at higher risk of developing it.
  • Previous treatment using radiation therapy: People who have radiation therapy to the chest or breast area have an increased risk of developing breast cancer later in life.

Changeable risk factors include:

  • Activity levels: A lack of physical activity increases a person’s risk of developing breast cancer.
  • Being overweight: Having overweight or obesity increases breast cancer risk.
  • Taking hormone replacement therapy: Certain forms of hormone replacement therapy that include estrogen and progesterone can raise a person’s risk of breast cancer.
  • Reproductive history: Becoming pregnant for the first time after age 30, not chestfeeding, and never having a full-term pregnancy can increase the risk of breast cancer.
  • Drinking alcohol: Alcohol consumption may increase the risk of developing all cancer forms.

How to reduce risk

There is no guaranteed way to prevent breast cancer, but there are certain steps a person can take to lower their risk.

Actions that may lower the risk of breast cancer include:

  • Get to a healthy weight: High body weight and weight gain as an adult increase the risk of breast cancer after menopause. The ACS recommends staying at a moderate weight and avoiding excess weight gain.
  • Get regular physical activity: The ACS recommends that adults get at least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity each week. This should include resistance/strength training at least twice a week.
  • Avoid or limit alcohol: Alcohol consumption increases a person’s risk of breast cancer. The ACS recommends no more than one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men.
  • Chestfeeding: People who choose to chestfeed for at least several months after childbirth may reduce their risk of breast cancer.

Typically, the diagnostic procedure begins with an examination of the breast. The doctor will feel for lumps within the tissue and may also check the lymph nodes.

The doctor will also ask about the person’s medical history and whether there is a family history of breast cancer.

The doctor may then order additional tests, including:

The doctor will describe the treatment options and next steps if breast cancer is present.

Breast cancer treatment depends on several factors, including:

  • the type of cancer
  • the stage of cancer at the time of detection
  • the person’s age
  • the person’s overall health

Some of the most common breast cancer treatments include:

The doctor will describe the various options at each stage of treatment and work to determine the best course of action.

Several benign breast conditions can cause symptoms that resemble those of cancer. Some of these issues require treatment, while others go away on their own.

Though these conditions are benign, they can cause:

  • discomfort or pain
  • swelling
  • lumps

Some common benign breast conditions include:

  • Cysts: These are fluid-filled sacs that can form in many parts of the body, including the breasts.
  • Mastitis: This is inflammation (swelling) in the breast that is usually from an infection.
  • Hyperplasia: This is an overgrowth of cells, particularly in the milk ducts or lobules inside the breast.
  • Sclerosing adenosis: This is a condition in which lobules enlarge.
  • Intraductal papillomas: These are benign wart-like tumors that grow within the milk ducts of the breast.
  • Fibroadenoma: These are common breast tumors that develop when an overgrowth of fibrous or glandular tissue forms around a lobule.
  • Radial scar: Also called complex sclerosing lesions, these are a core of connective tissue that can resemble breast cancer on a mammogram.
  • Fat necrosis: This develops following an injury to fatty breast tissue, as can happen following surgery, radiation, or injury to the breast.
  • Phyllodes tumors: These are fast-growing but typically painless tumors that start in the connective tissue of the breast. Some can be cancerous.

If a person is unsure what is causing any breast-related symptom, they should talk with a doctor as soon as possible.

See a doctor about any changes in the breast or nipple. It is important to seek medical attention for:

  • changes in the shape, feel, or size of the breasts
  • a lump in the breast or underarm area
  • skin that is itchy, red, scaled, dimpled, or puckered
  • nipple changes and discharge
  • persistent pain in the breast

As with most cancers, early breast cancer detection and treatment leads to a better outcome. People should attend regular breast examinations and tell a doctor about any breast-related symptoms or changes.

According to the ACS, when a doctor diagnoses breast cancer before it has spread beyond the breast, the relative 5-year survival rate is 99%.

Relative survival rates can help people understand the likelihood of treatment being successful. A relative 5-year survival rate indicates the percentage of people living 5 years after their diagnosis compared to people without the disease.

When breast cancer has spread beyond the breast to the lymph nodes, the 5-year survival rate is 86%. The same survival rate for cancer that has spread to other organs is 29%.

However, many factors specific to each individual affect these estimates. A doctor can provide more detailed information about a person’s outlook.

Different types of breast cancer may cause different symptoms, including swelling, pain, discharge from the nipple, and changes to the feel and appearance of the breasts.

Because some forms of breast cancer may not cause symptoms in the early stages, it’s important to attend regular screenings and conduct breast self-exams. Individuals should become familiar with the regular look and feel of their breasts so that they can detect changes early on.

While changes in breast appearance may not always indicate breast cancer—swelling, discharge changes to the nipple, inflammation, or pain are reasons to see a doctor.

The earlier a doctor detects breast cancer, the earlier that treatment can start. As with other types of cancer, early treatment may prevent cancer from spreading and lead to a better outcome.

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