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Uncommon Breast Cancer Symptoms

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By Kathleen DohenyOctober 19, 2015
From the WebMD Archives

While breast lumps are a common warning sign of possible breast cancer, they’re not the only one. Other, lesser-known symptoms could also point to the disease.

Like breast lumps, these less common symptoms could also reflect benign conditions. However, you should be checked by a doctor if you have any of them. We asked Holly Pederson, MD, director of medical breast services at the Cleveland Clinic, to explain.

WebMD: Besides lumps, what other symptoms might indicate breast cancer?

Pederson: One less common sign is breast puckering. If a woman lifts her arm and looks in the mirror, there can be a puckering of the skin. If you lift your arms overhead and have a puckering anywhere [on the breasts] it should be checked out. When the tumor grows, it disrupts the architecture [of the skin] and can cause a puckering of the ligaments inside. Puckering looks like kind of an indentation that comes back to normal as you put your arms back down.

Another less common sign is nipple discharge that comes out on its own. Nipple discharge is a relatively common complaint. If it occurs only with squeezing of the nipple and is on both sides and is white or greenish or even brownish, it is usually not a sign of breast cancer.

But when it comes out on its own, from one nipple, and is bloody or clear, it might be a sign of breast cancer.

WebMD: Any other uncommon symptoms to know about?

Pederson: Breast pain, particularly when a woman is older, over 50, can be the only sign of a breast cancer. In a postmenopausal woman, , pain is less common and pain in one spot should definitely be evaluated. The pain is from the growth of the cancer.

Another uncommon symptom is flaking or change in the color of the nipple and areola complex [the ring of color around the nipple]. Cancer can originate in the nipple. If the flaking and irritation involve the nipple and not the areola complex, it should be taken seriously. The nipple will look reddish or purplish; it doesn’t look normal. It is actually the tumor cells invading the nipple that cause the skin to look different [if it is breast cancer].

A red spot on the breast [should also be checked out]. It is often disregarded [but could be a sign of inflammatory breast cancer]. Inflammatory breast cancer is very rare, but a breast that is red or swollen, especially if the skin becomes thickened, should be evaluated. You can [also] have a red breast due to breast infections. Inflammatory breast cancer does not come on all of a sudden, whereas breast infection comes on all of a sudden.

WebMD: Women should still be on the outlook for breast lumps, right? If so, what’s the best way?

Pederson: It’s still important to look for lumps. Lumps are the most common sign. And it’s still important, in my view, to do breast self exams. There have been studies that have shown [they] may lead to women presenting too often for evaluation of symptoms that turn out not to be cancer. But working in the breast clinic day in and out, it’s amazing how many women find their own lumps and their own cancers. Women should definitely report any changes in breast tissue to their health care provider.

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