From one country to another, nearly one woman in eight is likely to develop breast cancer during her lifetime. Finding a lump can be an indication of breast cancer, but there are many other symptoms and warning signs that are still too often overlooked. Know how to detect the symptoms of breast cancer so you can act quickly.
Symptoms of breast cancer: a lump in the breast
The presence of a lump in a breast is one of the most common symptoms of breast cancer. Some of the characteristics of this lump include
This lump keeps the same shape and size during the menstrual cycle and it seems impossible to move it
The lump may be tender, but it is usually not painful
The lump may appear hard, with a different shape than the rest of the breast tissue.
What is breast cancer?
Cancer starts when abnormal cells grow and form a small lump (or tumor) in the breast. In about 90% of cases, the tumor forms in the breast ducts (ductal carcinoma) or in the breast gland (lobular carcinoma). When the cancer cells remain on the ductal wall without infiltrating it, it is called ductal carcinoma in situ, or DCIS. It is very rare for a tumor to develop in the connective tissue or fat of which the rest of the breast is composed.
At the time of diagnosis, the breast tumor is classified according to its stage of development, i.e. from 0 (least advanced stage) to IV (most advanced stage). These indications relate to the size of the tumor and whether or not the malignant cells have spread elsewhere in the body.
Presence of a lump in the armpit
If you find one or more firm lumps that don’t move, or if the tissue is really dense compared to that in your other armpit, it could be a sign of breast cancer. These masses are often painless, but they can sometimes be tender.
Small, hard lumps in the armpits could indicate that the breast cancer has spread to the lymph nodes.
Change in breast size or shape
A change in the size or shape of the breast can also be a symptom of breast cancer.
Changes in breast skin texture
Dimpling, thickening or wrinkling of the breast skin can be a symptom of breast cancer.
Itchy and inflamed breasts
An itchy breast or nipple can be a symptom of inflammatory breast cancer. Redness, warmth or swelling can also be a sign of inflammatory breast cancer.
Changes in the nipple
Another sign of breast cancer is an inwardly drawn nipple.
Upper back pain
Some women may experience back (upper back) pain before breast cancer is detected.
Scabbing or peeling skin on the nipple
Scabbing or ulceration and peeling skin on the nipple can be signs of some rare types of breast cancer.
A discharge from the breast
In particular, discharge from a single nipple can be a symptom of breast cancer. This is especially true if the discharge occurs without pressure on the nipple.
Late symptoms of breast cancer
As the cancer mass grows or spreads to other parts of the body, late signs and symptoms may appear.
These late symptoms include headaches, blurred vision, muscle weakness, and bone pain. Other symptoms include nausea, loss of appetite or weight loss, jaundice, shortness of breath, and coughing.
How to better prevent and protect yourself from breast cancer
According to Dr. Judith Hugh, a physician and pathologist at the University of Alberta, most breast cancers are linked to modifiable risk factors. Dr. Sandhya Pruthi, editor of Best Health Women’s Health Encyclopedia, “Regular exercise and maintaining a healthy weight, even after menopause, reduces the risk of breast cancer in women who carry the breast cancer gene.”
Knowing which risk factors you can change and which you can’t is important. Talk about your risk factors and see your doctor regularly so you have a plan for early detection.
Be careful with fat
Certain types of fat appear to raise estrogen levels, increasing the risk of breast cancer. Results from a recent study in Sweden indicate that monounsaturated fats may lower the risk while polyunsaturated fats may increase it. Olive and canola oils, both monounsaturated, and the omega-3 fatty acids found in salmon, sardines and herring are good choices.
Avoid trans fats, found in stick margarine, baked goods and prepared snacks (read the label to see if the product contains partially hydrogenated oils) and corn, sunflower and safflower oils, which are high in polyunsaturated fats.
Eat foods rich in fibre
These substances bind to excess estrogen and carry it away through the intestinal tract. Legumes, whole rice, whole grain breads and cereals, and many fruits and vegetables are rich in fibre.
Eat fruits and vegetables
Be sure to eat plenty of cruciferous vegetables, including broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower, which stimulate the production of anti-cancer enzymes.
Avoid additives and choose raw foods
Whenever possible, eat meat and dairy products from animals and poultry raised without hormones. Wash your fruits and vegetables and peel them to remove pesticide residues.
Learn more about foods that oncologists avoid eating and that you should be wary of.
Study results indicate that women who exercise at least four hours a week have a 37% lower risk of developing breast cancer compared to those who do not. The benefits of exercise in preventing breast cancer need to be studied further to better understand all the mechanisms, but research shows that a woman who walks briskly for at least two and a half hours a week has a reduced risk of developing breast cancer by about 18% compared to a woman who leads a sedentary life.
Limit your alcohol intake
According to the American Society of Cancer, women who drink one drink a day have a small increase in breast cancer risk. However, heavy drinking has been linked to an increased risk of breast cancer. All epidemiological studies show that the risk of breast cancer increases with heavy alcohol consumption. “The link is now clearly established, but little attention is paid to it,” laments Kevin O’Hagan, spokesman for the Irish Cancer Society.
While more scientific research is needed to better understand all the mechanisms, one possible explanation is that alcohol raises estrogen levels, which promotes the development of certain cancers, while reducing essential nutrients such as folate and vitamin A, which protect against cell damage.
Mammograms can detect breast cancer two to five years before you feel a lump. If you are between the ages of 50 and 69, get a mammogram and a breast exam from your doctor every two years. High-risk women may need a mammogram more often. Also, do a breast self-examination every month, seven to 10 days before your period if you are still fertile, the same day every month if you are postmenopausal.
How to choose breast cancer treatments
In general, the factors that determine the treatment of breast cancer are the size of the tumor, how malignant it is and where it starts. The earlier and smaller the tumor is detected, the better the chances of surgery to remove it.
There are also treatments for more advanced stages, when the cancer cells have spread elsewhere in the body. In addition, your doctor will consider your age, general health and breast size, and whether or not you are menopausal when deciding on treatment. The treatment you will be offered will probably be a combination of surgery, chemotherapy or hormone therapy, and radiation therapy.
The superiority of one treatment over another is sometimes negligible. The most demanding program is not necessarily the best: some complex and difficult procedures increase the chance of success by only 1%. On the other hand, unless your cancer is at an advanced stage, you will benefit from at least a few weeks to learn about the various treatment options before starting one.
See your doctor to confirm your diagnosis and discuss treatment options. If you get two different opinions, consult a third or even a fourth doctor.
If possible, consult different experts with whom you can talk openly about your fears: about being anaesthetized, about losing an important part of your femininity, about the cancer growing in another part of your body, etc.
Good doctors are familiar with these kinds of concerns and can advise you on how to deal with them. In addition to consulting with experts, keeping a journal and confiding in friends and family members can help many women come to a more informed decision.