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Breast Cancer Symptoms and Explanations

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Updated April 16, 2014

Woman performing breast self examination Ron Chapple/The Image Bank/Getty Images

A lump or a thickening in the breast or in the armpit:

Some lumps or swelling in the breast tissue may be due to hormonal changes. But if a lump or thickening persists, whether it is in the breast or in the armpit area, it may be a cause for concern. Swelling in the armpit, where the lymph nodes are located, may indicate that the body is fighting an invasion. A lump in the breast tissue may indicate a cyst, or it may indicate a problem in the duct or the lobes. See your doctor or nurse practitioner for a screening. Here is an overview of lumps.

A change in size or shape of the mature breast:

If a mature breast changes size or shape, and especially if only one breast is changing, it may signal that milk ducts or the lobes deeper within the breast are swelling. This could be due to fibrocystic or regular monthly hormonal cycles. If the changes are not in step with regular periodical changes, consult a health professional and get an exam. Having a baseline mammogram can help you and your doctor keep track of changes with accuracy.

Fluid (not milk) leaking from the nipple:

Between ages 41 - 58, there may be a small bit of non-bloody leakage from the nipples of both breasts. This leakage is usually due to hormonal changes and is not worrisome. However, if the fluid is leaking from only one nipple, is a new discharge, or is bloody, there are several tests that can be done to discover what is causing it. Ask your doctor for a professional opinion on your next steps.

Change in size or shape of the nipple:

Changes in body weight, or natural changes that come with age may affect the size or shape of the nipples. However, if a nipple retracts (pulls in) and does not easily return to its normal shape, see your doctor or a nurse practitioner for a manual exam. If there is a problem with the milk ducts which are just below the surface of the nipple and areola, then having a diagnostic mammogram or ultrasound can help diagnose the trouble.

Changes of color, shape or texture of the nipple or the areola:

If you observe dimples, puckers, or a rash on the skin of the nipple or the areola, (darker skin that surrounds the nipple) and these symptoms persist, or do not respond well to treatment creams, check with your doctor to determine what action to take. One unusual type of breast cancer is called Paget's disease, and starts out in the form of a rash. When caught and dealt with at an early stage, this is a very curable condition.

Unusual pain in the breast or in the armpit:

Know your cyclical pains, and note if breast pain occurs in tune with the monthly period, and in both breasts. While uncomfortable, if it is normal to you, it may not be worrisome. But if you have pain which occurs off-cycle or in only one breast or armpit, get it checked out. Keeping a good record of your cycles will help you understand hormonal changes in your breasts, and also helps your doctor and nurse determine what may be happening in your body.

Everything is Connected:

Our bodies go through cycles and changes, some of which are due to age, weight gain or loss, hormones, medications, pregnancy, stress, or changes in diet. Some of us are very aware of living in our bodies, while others of us live more in our minds or in our emotions. In order to have and keep our health, it's good to be aware of our body and its rhythms.

Just as getting a toothache can seem to make your entire head hurt, or pulling a muscle in your leg causes you to limp and throws you off balance, finding a change in your breast affects your overall health and may signal a need to get a checkup or a diagnostic screening.

Knowing your body's normal changes helps you deal wisely with your health. Regular communication with your health care team can allay fears and help you raise your defenses against disease.

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