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Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in women. One in eight women in the U.S. will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime. While rare, it is also possible for men to get breast cancer. Fortunately, outcomes for breast cancer patients have improved significantly in recent decades.

Early diagnosis is important to successfully treating breast cancer. If you know the warning signs, you can get medical attention for yourself or your loved one sooner. Since breast cancer is so common, it is important for everyone to know the warning signs.

7 Breast Cancer Warning Signs

1. New lump in breast, collar, or underarm

The most well-known warning sign when it comes to breast cancer is a breast lump. A lump can occur in the breast itself, but may also appear in the collar region or underarm. Breast tissue extends from your collarbone to your underarm and rib cage. Lumps are often hard and painless with irregular edges, but some lumps may be painful or tender.

Most breast lumps are not caused by cancer, but if you find a lump, it’s important to have it looked at by a doctor. It is normal to have breast lumps before your period that go away. If you have a lump that does not disappear at the end of your period, you should alert your doctor.

2. Breast thickening or swelling

Breast thickening or swelling may be a sign of breast cancer. Swelling can also occur around your collarbone or armpits. This may be a sign that breast cancer has spread to your lymph nodes. Sometimes, patients notice breast swelling without ever noticing a lump. Thickening or swelling may cause a noticeable change in the size or shape of your breasts. Thickening or swelling may occur in one breast, or in both.

3. Breast skin dimpling

Breast dimpling may appear in a few different ways. It may appear as a single dimple, if there is a mass growing in the breast that is pulling the skin inward. Dimpling may also appear along with thickened skin, which may look like the dimples on an orange peel. This is a sign of a rare form of breast cancer called inflammatory breast cancer. Since dimpling is so visible, it is often the first sign someone notices. Be alert to any changes in the texture of your breasts.

4. Nipple changes

Changes to one or both nipples may be a sign of breast cancer. Changes can include discharge, which may be bloody. Blood can be a sign that the cause is breast cancer rather than an infection. Your nipple might turn inward or the skin may become red, scaly, or thickened.

5. Red, flaky, itchy, warm, or thickened skin

Sometimes, red, flaky, itchy, warm, or thickened skin can be a sign of breast cancer. Thickened skin may begin to feel like an orange peel. The most common cause of these symptoms is mastitis. Mastitis is an infection that can occur while breastfeeding but is also a sign of breast cancer. If you’re experiencing these symptoms and they’ve lasted more than a week, you should talk to your doctor.

6. Breast, upper back, or shoulder pain

It is normal to experience some breast pain around the time of your period, due to hormonal changes. Breast pain may also be a sign of breast cancer, especially if it lasts for more than a few weeks. Pain from breast cancer is most likely to appear in the breasts, underarm, or collarbone. It is also possible for pain to appear in the upper back or shoulder.

Some patients assume they’ve pulled a muscle in their shoulder when they have breast cancer. This pain can be due to metastasis, which is when cancer spreads from one part of the body to another. Shoulder and upper back pain are very common and usually don’t mean a patient has breast cancer. If you’ve had shoulder or back pain that won’t go away, a doctor can screen you for cancer, along with other conditions.

7. No symptoms at all

Some women with breast cancer don’t experience any symptoms at all. It is important to follow guidelines for screening even if you don't have symptoms. Here are the current screening recommendations, according to the American Cancer Society:

  • Women ages 40-44 should have the choice to have an annual breast exam and mammogram if they wish to.
  • Women ages 45-54 should have a mammogram every year.
  • Women 55 and older can either continue yearly mammograms or switch to every two years.
  • Screening should continue as long as the patient is healthy and expected to live for at least ten more years.

Different organizations have different screening recommendations, and some women should have screening earlier. This is especially true if you have a family history of breast cancer since breast cancer can be genetic. Speak to your doctor about the best screening plan for you if you have a family history of breast cancer. This may include mammograms or even genetic testing.

Breast Cancer in the Elderly

Breast cancer risk increases with age. A third of women diagnosed are older than 70! Cancer risk in general increases with age, and breast cancer is no exception. If you’re a caregiver for an aging relative, make sure they receive proper screenings. Teach them the signs of breast cancer so they know what to look for.

Fortunately, the rate of breast cancer in women over 50 has been going down in recent years. Yet, as the population ages, the number of older women with breast cancer will continue to be high.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to treating breast cancer in the elderly. Cancer treatments include surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. Doctors often use a combination of these treatments for a single case of cancer. These treatments are hard on the body. Doctors must consider their patients’ ability to handle treatment when developing a plan.

Older patients are more likely to experience treatment side effects than younger patients. Sometimes, minimal treatment may be the best option. This may be the case if the cancer is not aggressive and the patient has other health conditions. This is a growing area of research and different doctors have different approaches. Your loved one may want to discuss treatment options with a few different doctors to find a treatment plan that makes them most comfortable.

Advice for Caring for a Loved One With Breast Cancer

If your loved one has breast cancer, your first response may be fear and uncertainty. You may also find yourself in a caregiving role once treatment begins. Cancer treatment is hard on the body, so your loved one may need more support throughout the day. If your spouse has breast cancer, you may have to take on a bigger role with childcare and housework.

Here are some tips to keep in mind as you step into your caregiving role:

  • Remain flexible and patient. Your loved one might have a lot of energy one day but feel exhausted the next. Avoid having expectations and instead take things day by day.
  • Let go of some responsibilities. If possible, step back from things that take a lot of time or energy. If you are always running out of time, make a list of things that you need to do then see if there’s anything you can cut.
  • Accept help. Chances are you have friends and family members who want to support you but don’t know how. Don’t be afraid to ask for support, even if it’s as simple as asking someone to pick your kids up from school sometimes.
  • Keep doing things you enjoy. Caregiving can be all-consuming. You will need to avoid burnout for your own wellbeing and so you can be a good caregiver. Continue to do things you enjoy, even if they’re small. Read a book, take a walk alone, or go out for lunch with a friend. Even simple things can re-energize you.
  • Allow yourself to process your feelings. It’s normal to feel scared, uncertain and angry when someone you love gets a cancer diagnosis. You may not have had the time to process your feelings if you’re a caregiver now. It might not feel like a priority, but it’s important to take time to process your feelings. Many cancer centers have support groups for family members of patients. Ask your loved one’s doctor about support services.

Breast cancer will impact your loved one even after they’ve finished treatment. Don’t wait for things to return to normal to celebrate. Celebrate milestones such as finishing surgery or making it through chemotherapy. If the cancer is in remission, celebrate, even if your loved one doesn’t have their energy back yet. It will take time for cancer to be behind you. Embrace your new normal as you support your loved one through their cancer.

Learn more about how Home Care Assistance's cancer care services can help you or a loved one.

References

Breast Anatomy

Breast Cancer Screening Guidelines for Women

Breast Cancer Symptoms: What You Need to Know

This Woman's Breast Dimpling Was Her Only Sign of Breast Cancer

Understanding Breast Changes

The Shoulder Pain due to Metastatic Breast Cancer

Shoulder Pain as the First Symptom of Advanced Breast Cancer

Breast Cancer in the Elderly: How BCRF Researchers are Treating this Growing Patient Population

Breast Cancer Program

About the Author(s)

Ashley Krollenbrock has been a caregiver for her mom for 10 years. She has her Masters of Public Health and JD with a concentration in Health Policy & Law. Ashley has done legal work for two state protection and advocacy agencies for people with disabilities. She is passionate about disability justice, aging justice, health equity, and aging in place. Ashley blogs at themillennialmatriarch.com, and her goal is to empower families to keep their aging loved ones at home by sharing her story and practical knowledge. Ashley lives in Oregon with her wife and mom, and when she’s not writing or caregiving she loves to travel, garden, and hike with her dogs.

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