Most breast cancers are found in females aged 45 years or older, with the average age of diagnosis being around 62 years. Early signs of breast cancer may include a lump or thickening in the breast or underarm area and nipple changes.

Breast cancer occurs most often in middle-aged and older females but can also occur in younger females and males.

Recognizing the early signs of breast cancer is crucial to treatment and survival, especially in older adults who may not respond as well to treatment due to age-related factors.

This article explains the signs of breast cancer in older females and emphasizes the importance of early detection through regular self-exams and mammograms.

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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According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), around 1 in 3 new cancer diagnoses among females in the United States is breast cancer. A breast cancer diagnosis is more common in females over the age of 45.

People can have different breast cancer symptoms, regardless of age. Some people may not have any symptoms at all.

However, people should be vigilant and watch for specific signs that may indicate potential breast cancer. Below are some more common or potential symptoms older females should be aware of.

A new lump or mass

Aging can cause changes in breast tissue. It is important to pay attention to any new lumps or masses that appear in the breast or underarm area, as this is the most common symptom of breast cancer.

Not all breast lumps are cancerous. However, the chance of a breast lump being cancerous is 3.5% for females in their 60s compared to a 0.5% chance for females in their 30s.

These lumps may feel hard, irregular, and distinct from the surrounding breast tissue. They may also be painful or cause discomfort.

The ACS emphasizes the importance of speaking with a healthcare professional for anyone who finds a new breast lump.

Nipple changes

Changes in the nipple, such as inversion (nipple turning inward) or discharge, especially if it is bloody or spontaneous, may also indicate the presence of breast cancer.

Older research suggests that 7% to 15% of people with abnormal nipple discharge have cancerous cells. The risk increases if the discharge occurs alongside a lump, particularly for people over the age of 50.

Additionally, flaky, dry, or thickened skin around the nipple or areola may be a sign of Paget’s disease of the nipple. This is a rare type of breast cancer, but older age may increase the risk of developing it.

Learn about Paget’s disease of the breast.

Breast pain or discomfort

Pain and discomfort may come with aging and hormonal changes, but persistent or unexplained breast pain can be a sign of breast cancer.

Breast pain is an uncommon symptom of breast cancer. It has more of an association with benign (noncancerous) conditions such as hormonal fluctuations or an abscess.

Although breast pain alone does not typically indicate breast cancer, people should speak with a doctor to learn the underlying cause, particularly if breast pain occurs alongside other symptoms, such as a hard lump in the breast.

Although the ACS does not recommend regular clinical breast exams or breast self-exams as part of a routine breast cancer screening schedule, self-exams are still an important tool for detecting changes that may be signs of cancer.

However, age-related changes can make the process slightly different for older females.

Here are some tips for performing a breast self-exam in older people:

  • To observe visual symptoms, stand or sit in front of a well-lit mirror and check for changes in the size, shape, or symmetry of the breasts.
  • Pay attention to the nipples and surrounding area for dimpling, puckering, or discoloration that might not have been present before.
  • Raise one arm as high as it can comfortably go and check the breasts and underarms for visible changes in skin texture or appearance. Repeat the same process with the other arm raised.
  • When feeling for any changes, choose a comfortable position, such as lying on a bed or sitting upright in a chair. If lying down, consider using a pillow under the right shoulder for better comfort.
  • Use a firm but gentle touch to feel for any lumps, thickening, or changes in texture in the breast tissue.

The ACS recommends that females aged 45 to 54 undergo mammograms yearly, while those who are 55 and older can move to screening every 2 years if they choose.

If a person notices any changes in their breasts during a self-exam or experiences symptoms, they should speak with a doctor promptly for evaluation and testing.

During the appointment, the doctor may perform a clinical breast exam, order additional imaging tests such as mammography or ultrasound, and possibly recommend a biopsy to further investigate any abnormalities or concerns.

Early diagnosis of breast cancer improves treatment success and outlook. Early stage breast cancer is highly treatable, with higher survival rates, while later-stage detection may limit treatment options and lead to a less favorable outlook.

Signs of breast cancer in older females may include a new lump in the breast or changes to the nipple, such as unusual discharge.

People can monitor their breast health by visual inspection and touch and should seek medical help if they notice any abnormalities.

Older females should speak with a doctor if they have any concerns about breast cancer or wish to change their frequency of screening.