What Are the Early Signs of Breast Cancer?

Last Updated Apr 24, 2019

Breast cancer is the second most common cancer found in women — after skin cancer — but that doesn’t mean men aren’t at risk as well. Although the percentage of cases in men is much lower than in women, male breast cancer accounts for a portion of new cases every year.


The disease has no barriers when it comes to gender, ethnicity or race, and anyone could potentially develop it, particularly if they have certain risk factors, such as prior oral contraceptive or hormone use, genetic factors and family history.

Fortunately, scientists and researchers have made great strides in the treatment of breast cancer. Being vigilant and watching for the early signs of breast cancer is one of the most effective steps in successful treatment. Detecting breast cancer in the early stages before it progresses very far often leads to positive outcomes.

Breast Cancer Statistics and Facts

Approximately one out of every eight women in the United States will develop invasive breast cancer. This equates to an average risk of around 13%. Women who have a mother, sister or daughter with breast cancer are almost twice as likely to develop it as other women. The risk increases to about three times as likely if they have more than one relative in this close family group with breast cancer. However, most women who develop breast cancer don’t have any family history at all. Only about 15% of women have other family members who were previously diagnosed with the disease.

For men, the risk of developing breast cancer is much lower than women, about 100 times lower for white men, in fact. Black men, on the other hand, are only about 70 times less likely to develop it than black women. On average, roughly one out of every 833 men will develop breast cancer.  

Early Breast Cancer Symptoms

Breast cancer is obviously common enough, particularly in women, to cause concern, but early detection can tip the scales in favor of a positive outcome. For starters, it’s important to pay attention to breast appearance, because one of the earliest signs of breast cancer is a change in breast size or shape due to swelling or other factors. Some women may notice pain or a red, irritated rash in a certain area that doesn’t go away, and lumps may be felt or even be visible in the breast or the underarm area. Veins that become more prominent, dimpling in the breast tissue and nipple discharge are also signs that should be investigated.

Women could have all the symptoms of breast cancer or only a few, so it’s important to be diligent about all the potential signs. On the other hand, symptoms don’t always mean you have breast cancer. Many of the symptoms could also be signs of other less serious conditions. The goal is to be proactive and work with your doctor to evaluate possible signs of breast cancer — but without panicking.

Breast Cancer Symptoms in Men

For men, breast cancer is far less common, and it may be easier to overlook symptoms. Men need to remain vigilant to ensure they don’t miss the early signs of men’s breast cancer. Potential symptoms include skin dimpling, nipple retraction or discharge, a lump or swelling that might be painful, and red or scaly skin around or on the nipple. If the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes under the arm, this could cause swelling in the armpit.

Stages of Breast Cancer

If you are diagnosed with breast cancer, doctors and pathologists will examine biopsy and imaging results to determine the stage — also known as the progression — of the disease. The process is complicated but necessary to determine the best treatment plan for your particular type of cancer. The most common staging system is the TNM (Tumor, Node, Metastasis), which focuses on tumor size, lymph node involvement and metastatic spread of the cancer. It also factors in details related to hormone receptors, the protein HER2 and growth rate of the cells.

In the simplest terms — the full staging system has numerous substages — Stage 0 involves potentially abnormal cells, but a tumor hasn’t been located. At Stage I, a detected tumor is smaller than 2 centimeters and may have spread cancer cells to the lymph nodes. Stage II could have a tumor size up to 5 centimeters, and cancer has begun to spread to the lymph nodes. Stage III is the first stage considered to be advanced breast cancer, with the cancer possibly spreading to other parts of the chest and the lymph nodes. The primary tumor is more than 5 centimeters at this point.

In Stage IV, the cancer has spread to other organs and parts of the body beyond the breast. This stage is often referred to as metastatic breast cancer and is more difficult to treat due to the impact on other organs. Stage IV cancer symptoms include visible swelling in the breast and armpit; dry, flaky skin; red, dimpled skin; nipple discharge; breast pain; fatigue; insomnia; loss of appetite; weight loss; shortness of breath and other symptoms related to the specific organs involved.

Breast Cancer Prognosis

Breast cancer survival rates depend on many factors, including the type and stage of the cancer, but early detection is one of the most important factors. Advances in testing and treatment have led to some huge strides forward in survival rate, but individual results are still impossible to predict.

When calculating the statistics, the American Cancer Society uses something called relative survival rate, which basically means they compare the five-year survival rate for women with the same type and stage of breast cancer to the five-year survival rate for women without cancer. Women diagnosed with breast cancer that has not spread outside the breast have a five-year relative survival rate of about 99%. Once the cancer spreads to other parts of the chest or the lymph nodes, the five-year relative survival rate drops to 86%, which is still a very positive prognosis. If the cancer has spread to other parts of the body, treatment becomes more difficult, and the five-year relative survival rate drops to 27%.

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