In breast cancer, abnormal genes cause breast cells to grow out of control and not die as they normally would.
If these cells grow slowly and do not invade other tissues, they cause benign tumors. Usually, these bumps are not dangerous to health.
When abnormal cells grow faster and begin to invade surrounding tissues, they form cancerous tumors. These lumps pose a serious risk and can spread, creating new tumors throughout the body.
According to BreastCancer.orgTrusted Source, 1 in 8 women in the United States will experience invasive breast cancer at some point in her life. The researchers estimate that in 2021, about 281,550 women will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer in the United States. Approximately 43,600 women are expected to die from the disease in the country this year.
Breast cancer is one of the most common forms of cancer in women in the United States, accounting for about 30 percent of new cancer cases in 2021. Men face a much lower risk. In the United States, the lifetime risk is about 1 in 1,000.
Early signs and symptoms
When breast cancer first appears, it can cause a variety of different symptoms.
Breast cancer can often be difficult to detect in its early stages. Although some people with breast cancer will experience lumps, pain, swelling, and skin changes, others may not experience obvious symptoms.
The American Cancer Society (ACS) reports that most cases of breast cancer first appear as a new lump or mass. A wide variety of other symptoms may also appear, including:
breast or nipple pain
swelling, irritation, or color change in the breast or nipple
a new mole or change in an existing mole on the breast or nipple
a sore on the breast or nipple that does not heal
tenderness or enlarged glands under the arm or in the neck area
changes in the size, shape, or general appearance of the breast or nipple
hoarseness or persistent cough
changes in appetite
difficulty to swallow
pain after meals
pain or difficulty urinating or having a bowel movement
blood in urine or stool
unexplained weight loss or gain
general feeling of weakness or tiredness
The National Cancer Institute (NCI) offers a risk assessment tool to help guide doctors.
What do breast lumps feel like?
The feeling of a breast lump depends on its cause, location, and growth. It can vary significantly from painful, hard, and immobile to soft, painless, and easily moved.
According to BreastCancer.org, lumps are most likely cancerous if they are painless, hard, irregularly shaped, and non-movable.
Fibroadenoma lumps tend to be painful, easily moved, smooth, round, and may go away on their own. Breast cysts are soft, but firm. Breast abscesses and mastitis usually cause painful, swollen lumps and are often accompanied by fever and/or redness around the affected skin.
Most early breast cancers are diagnosed on screening mammograms before a lump can be felt. Mammograms are an effective method of detecting breast cancer. However, mammograms do not detect breast cancer 100 percent of the time.
The hardest part of early detection is that changes and symptoms may or may not appear. That’s why regular exams are so important.
Tips for self-examination
The US National Breast Cancer Foundation (NBCF) encourages people to self-exam at home every month to look for changes in their breasts.
They suggest doing it in three stages: in the shower, in front of the mirror, and at bedtime.
How to feel the abnormalities
Always seek medical attention if you have concerns about possible breast symptoms.
The shower is the ideal place to check for breast lumps, but a person can perform this stage of the exam anywhere.
With your fingertips, move in a circular motion from the inside, near the nipple, to the outside. People should feel changes such as bumps, thickening, or pain.
It covers the entire breast area, from the neckline to the surrounding area of the chest, collarbone and armpit. Do it from side to side and up and down.
Apply gentle pressure near the surface of the breast and the nipple. Moderate to firm pressure is required to adequately check the deep tissue and the tissue closest to the sternum and back muscles. The nipple should also be squeezed, to check for discharge, lumps, and pain.
Do the same routine while lying down, which allows the breast tissue to rest evenly against the chest wall.
How to observe abnormalities
Standing in front of a mirror, people should observe the general appearance of the breasts and nipples. Here are some questions to think about:
Are they a similar size, shape, or height?
Are they different in color from each other?
Are there any visible lesions, marks, discoloration or moles on the skin?
Are there any signs of swelling, bulging, dimpling, or changes in contour?
Are there nipples out or in?
People should observe these details with their arms at their sides and above their heads.
People should then press their palms firmly onto their hips and flex their chest muscles. It is rare for two breasts to be identical, but it is important to note the differences between each.
Many health authorities no longer recommend performing a routine physical self-examination, but anyone who notices a change in their breast tissue and is concerned should see a doctor for further investigation.
However, having an idea of the normal size, shape, appearance, and feel of the breasts can help a person keep an eye out for any changes.
Other conditions that cause breast lumps
According to the British National Health Service, the vast majority of breast lumps are non-cancerous. Although some can be painful and cause breast changes, benign lumps are not considered life-threatening. However, they may require treatment or surgery.
Conditions of benign breast lumps include:
fibrocystic breast disease
ductal or lobular hyperplasia
cysts, abscesses, or infection
Complex lesions or scars from previous breast biopsies
Causes and risk factors
According to the ACS, most types of breast cancer are ductal cancers, which begin in the cells that carry milk to the nipple. Lobular cancers, which begin in the glands that produce milk, are less common.
BreastCancer.org indicates that approximately 5 percent to 10 percent of all breast cancer cases in women in the United States are hereditary. This means that an abnormal gene is passed from parent to child, which is often the BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation.
Having abnormal copies of these genes increases the risk of breast, ovarian, and other types of cancer.
About 85 percent of breast cancer cases occur in women with no family history of the condition. Age, gender and ethnicity are the greatest risk factors. For women, the risk increases with age, and non-Hispanic white women are at greater risk than women of other races.
The NIC reports that the chances of developing breast cancer increase with age. The NIC indicates that the 10-year risk of developing breast cancer is 1 in 227 for a 30-year-old woman and 1 in 26 for a 70-year-old woman.
The most significant increase in these probabilities occurs during the period between 30 and 50 years, increasing from 1 in 227 to 1 in 42.
breast cancer in men
Breast cancer can also affect men.
The ACS estimates that about 2,650 men will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer and about 530 will die from the condition in 2021.
The rate of breast cancer in non-Hispanic white men in the United States is about 100 times lower than in non-Hispanic white women, and about 70 times lower in black men compared to white women.
The prognosis of breast cancer in men is similar to the prognosis in women at the same stage of diagnosis.
However, men are often diagnosed late, possibly due to a lack of awareness of male breast cancer.
When to see a doctor
If any of the above signs or symptoms appear, people should see a doctor.
Women should also ask their doctor about regular screening, as some changes may not be detectable in the early stages.
The American College of Physicians (ACP) guidelines recommend the following:
Women should start talking to their doctor about breast cancer screenings starting at age 40.
Women at average risk should have a mammogram every 2 years from ages 50 to 74.
Individual risk factors may mean that some women need additional screening. A doctor will advise on risk factors, how often to screen, and when to start.
It is important to note that different authorities, such as the ACS, have different guidelines. Each person should talk to their doctor about the best option.
The most common tools for analyzing breast lumps are clinical breast exams, mammography, breast MRIs, and biopsies.
Many bumps are harmless or caused by conditions other than cancer, but only a doctor can tell.