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Breast Cancer Signs and Symptoms

Physicians have made tremendous gains in treating breast cancer in recent years, but early detection remains critical to achieving the best possible outcomes. Specializing in the treatment of many cancer types and blood disorders across New Jersey, Connecticut, Maryland, and the Washington, D.C., area, the medical oncologists of Regional Cancer Care Associates (RCCA) have the expertise and experience needed to provide highly individualized, effective care to patients facing breast cancer. Learn more about breast cancer symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment with Regional Cancer Care Associates.

What Is Breast Cancer?

Breast cancer is the development of cancerous cells in one or both breasts. Because cancerous cells grow in a disordered manner and often at a faster pace than healthy cells, they eventually form tumors. Tumors typically develop in the lobules or ducts of the breast, and they can spread throughout the body via lymph vessels or blood vessels.

Patient performing a breast exam and feeling pain
Doctor explaining scan to patient

Risk Factors for Breast Cancer

Risk factors for breast cancer include:


Breast cancer can arise from genes passed to children by their parents. If a person has a family history of breast cancer, this can increase the likelihood of develop the disease.

Medical History

A person’s medical history can affect the chances of developing breast cancer. People who have had breast cancer in the past are more likely to develop it again. Radiation therapy used to treat past cases of breast cancer or other cancers can also increase the chances of developing the disease. In addition, some breast conditions, such as atypical ductal hyperplasia, increase the risk for breast cancer.


Breast cancer risk increases with age. Many cases are diagnosed in people aged 50 years or older. This is why regular mammogram screening is recommended once women reach a certain age.

Medication History

Certain medications can also increase the risk for breast cancer. For example, birth control pills and other contraceptives may be associated with a small increase in the risk for developing breast cancer in the future. Hormone replacement therapy, a type of medication that some patients take during menopause, can also increase the chances of developing breast cancer.

Common Breast Cancer Symptoms and Signs

While breast cancer symptoms can be unique for each person, there are several common signs:

  • A lump or thickening in the breast or underarm
  • Nipple discharge
  • Changes in breast size or shape
  • Warmth, swelling, or redness
  • Nipple changes
  • Skin dimpling or puckering
  • Breast or nipple pain

Less Common Signs and Symptoms

Some less common symptoms that can indicate the presence of breast cancer include:

  • Ulceration or sores on the breast
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Nipple inversion or retraction
  • Itchy or scaly rash on the nipple

Signs and Symptoms in Advanced Stages

If breast cancer advances and worsens, some patients may experience additional symptoms, like:

  • Weight loss
  • Bone pain
  • Shortness of breath

Signs and Symptoms of Breast Cancer in Men

Although breast cancer is more common in women, men can still develop the disease. If a male patient has a family history of breast cancer, this can increase the chances of developing it in the future. Some signs of breast cancer in men include:

  • Nipple discharge
  • Breast lump or thickening
  • Changes in the nipple or breast skin

Noncancerous Conditions That Mimic Breast Cancer

It is normal for women to notice changes in their breasts, especially during menstruation and pregnancy. Having a period or becoming pregnant can cause changes to the size of the breasts and nipples, as well as pain. Other conditions that can mimic symptoms of breast cancer include:

Fibrocystic Changes

Fibrocystic disease is a noncancerous condition that can cause changes in the breast, like unusual lumps and soreness. These lumps are made of fibrous tissue, which are the same tissues that make up scars and ligaments. The lumps can feel firm or rubbery. Patients can also experience cysts in the breasts. Cysts are typically movable, round lumps, and they can appear larger or become painful around a woman’s menstrual period.


A fibroadenoma is a common, noncancerous lump found in the breast. Fibroadenomas are made up of fibrous and glandular tissues that form a smooth, round, and solid mass. While fibroadenomas can contain breast cancer, this is rare. The lumps can shrink or go away by themselves. They are not painful and can move around easily when pushing on the breast. The two main types of fibroadenomas are simple and complex. Similar to lumps caused by fibrocystic conditions, fibroadenomas can grow larger and become painful before or during a woman’s period.

Infection and Abscesses

Breast abscesses are caused by a collection of pus in the breast due to infection. They can affect individuals who are lactating or breastfeeding. Breast inflammation can also cause infection in the breasts. Cuts, cracked nipples, and nipple piercings can increase the chances of developing a breast infection or abscess.


When to See a Doctor

A breast self-exam involves feeling the breasts with the hands to check for any unusual lumps. This should be done regularly to ensure there are no issues or changes. If a woman detects an unusual lump, she should contact a doctor for a clinical breast exam and potentially a mammogram. Physicians conduct a clinical breast exam by using their hands to feel the breasts for lumps and other symptoms.

A mammogram is obtained through use of an X-ray device specifically designed to evaluate the breast. This facilitates early diagnosis and treatment if breast cancer is detected. If physicians suspect that a patient has breast cancer, they may schedule additional testing, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the breast. 

Diagnosis and Testing for Breast Cancer

The preferred diagnostic approach for each patient depends on the nature of symptoms and other factors that affect the likelihood of the person having breast cancer, such as the age of the patient. Diagnostic and testing procedures include:

Diagnostic Mammograms and Ultrasounds

To determine the location and size of the mass, physicians perform a mammogram screening or ultrasound test of the breast. Diagnostic mammograms are different from regular screening mammograms because physicians take more pictures of the breast to get a fuller look.

Ultrasounds use sound waves to create an image of breast tissues. Ultrasounds look at specific breast areas rather than at the entire breast. This enables physicians to make a more detailed assessment of a mass to determine if it is cancerous or noncancerous.

Biopsy Procedures

A biopsy involves removing a small amount of breast tissue to test for cancerous cells. There are different kinds of biopsy procedures to choose from based on the type of breast cancer a patient may have. These include:

  • Fine needle aspiration biopsy
  • Surgical biopsy
  • Core needle biopsy
  • Image-guided biopsy
  • Sentinel lymph node biopsy (performed as part of a surgical procedure)

Based on biopsy findings, physicians can determine the features and grade of the tumor, giving them an idea of how far the breast cancer has advanced.

Treatment Options for Breast Cancer

Determining the size, type, and location of a breast cancer tumor enables physicians to formulate the best treatment plan for a patient. There are many methods of treatment, such as:


Surgery involves cutting into the breast to remove cancerous lumps and surrounding tissues. If the cancer is extensive, patients may opt for a mastectomy, a procedure that removes the entire breast. When a patient is at high risk for breast cancer due to genetics or other factors, she and her physician may opt for a double mastectomy, meaning the removal of both the breast with cancer and the other breast. This approach is taken to reduce the chances of breast cancer returning.

Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy involves using high-energy beams, such as X-rays, to kill cancerous cells. Radiation therapy can be used on its own or in conjunction with other treatments, such as surgery or chemotherapy. Following surgery for tumor removal, radiation therapy can eliminate the remaining cancerous cells.


Chemotherapy uses medication to shrink or kill cancerous cells. This type of treatment is typically administered through an intravenous line or in pill form.

Hormone Therapy

Hormone therapy block the body’s production of hormones associated with the development and growth of breast cancer or changes how those hormones work.

Targeted Therapy

Targeted therapy uses specialized medications to attack specific cancerous cells. This is a more focused treatment method than chemotherapy and can be used alongside other treatments in pursuit of the total elimination of breast cancer. Targeted therapy can also be used if chemotherapy does not work.

Living with Breast Cancer

Dealing with a breast cancer diagnosis can be difficult. This makes it important to have the necessary resources for emotional and psychological support. Joining support groups for breast cancer, reaching out to family members and loved ones, and communicating with physicians provide patients with the information, understanding, and encouragement they need.

Support groups can allow patients to feel less alone in their diagnosis, as patients can open up and reach out to others with similar experiences. Speaking with loved ones can also give patients the emotional support needed during this difficult time. Additionally, talking with physicians can give patients a better understanding of their diagnosis, outlook, and future.

Eating healthy, staying hydrated, and exercising regularly not only improve patients’ quality of life but can also decrease their chances of developing breast cancer again. Patients should also stop smoking and limit alcohol consumption.

Prevention and Risk Reduction

There are many ways people can reduce their chances of developing breast cancer. Making healthy lifestyle choices is an important step in reducing risk. Not getting enough physical activity or being overweight can increase the likelihood of having breast cancer in the future. By exercising daily and staying active, people can lower the risk of developing breast cancer. In addition, drinking alcohol can potentially increase the chances of developing breast cancer, so limiting or eliminating alcohol consumption can reduce risk.

Obtaining regular mammogram screenings starting at the age appropriate for your degree of risk also is critical. Consult your physician about the optimal time to start having mammograms.

Trust the Expert Cancer Care at Regional Cancer Care Associates

Awareness and early detection of breast cancer can benefit individuals greatly. This way, they can receive early treatment for their symptoms before the cancer grows or worsens. Regional Cancer Care Associates delivers a personalized, comprehensive approach to patient care. Serving patients across New Jersey, Connecticut, Maryland, and the Washington, D.C., area in our 20 locations, RCCA’s medical oncologists have the experience and expertise to provide effective treatment for cancer and blood disorders. To learn more about breast cancer symptoms and treatment, contact Regional Cancer Care Associates today. 

Don’t Ignore Breast Cancer Signs

If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, consult with your doctor right away. With so many different types of breast cancer, only a medical professional can rule out the disease. If you are diagnosed with breast cancer, our comprehensive, patient-centered care at Regional Cancer Care Associates will help you fight this disease. For more information, contact us today to schedule an appointment at one of our 30 locations in New Jersey, Connecticut or Maryland.


Regional Cancer Care Associates is one of fewer than 200 medical practices in the country selected to participate in the Oncology Care Model (OCM); a recent Medicare initiative aimed at improving care coordination and access to and quality of care for Medicare beneficiaries undergoing chemotherapy treatment.