5 signs of breast cancer that aren't a lump

A female patient checking her breast for lumps
Lumps are not the only symptom for breast cancer. Learn about the others.

For decades, the medical community and the media have waged an effective awareness campaign about the signs and symptoms of breast cancer, educating the public about the importance of diligently monitoring their breasts for lumps. And the tactic has worked. Early detection has contributed to a 38 percent decline in breast cancer deaths in women from 1992 to 2018, according to the National Cancer Institute. While that’s an important step forward, many other abnormalities that may also indicate breast cancer are lesser known and discussed. Some, then, may be led to assume that no lump and no tumor mean no cancer, but that may be a dangerous conclusion to draw.

When most people think about breast cancer symptoms, they think of breast lumps. But doctors say visual changes may be especially key in helping detect breast cancer early. You may notice some of these changes just by changing the way you look at your reflection in the mirror, says Cynthia Lynch, MD, Medical Oncologist at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA), Phoenix.

“You can see a lot of things just by looking at your breasts in the mirror. When your arms are by your side, you don't always see everything,” says Dr. Lynch, Breast Cancer Program Clinical Advisor for CTCA®. “Put your hands on your hips or raise them up. Having arms in two different positions while looking is also helpful.”

In this article, we’ll discuss the signs and symptoms of breast cancer, including:

If you believe you’re experiencing some signs or symptoms of breast cancer and would like to talk to a breast cancer expert at CTCA about your diagnostic and treatment options, call us or chat online with a member of our team.

Warning signs

These other warning signs of breast cancer include:

Changes to the nipple and the surrounding area: Changes in the nipple area may be a genetic malformation or alteration, but nipple retraction—when the nipple becomes inverted—may be a sign of cancer. If the nipple wasn’t inverted before and becomes inverted, consult with your doctor.

Bloody nipple discharge: Bleeding from the nipple may be limited and difficult to see, but if you notice blood stains on your bra, pay attention. Clear or milky secretions may result from normal physiologic changes during pre-pubertal stages. But if the secretions are unusual, bloody or continuous, speak to your health care provider.

Change in color and/or thickening of skin on the breast: Known in the medical community as peau d'orange (a French term meaning skin of an orange), any dimpling or thickening of breast skin that resembles an orange rind is a red flag. These symptoms are often associated with inflammatory breast cancer (IBC), a rare but aggressive disease that usually does not involve a lump and may not be detected by a mammogram. IBC symptoms are caused by cancer cells blocking lymph vessels in the skin.

Symptoms of IBC include:

  • Rash
  • Thickening of the skin
  • Shooting pain

Some changes are localized to the breast, upper abdomen or the rear part of the chest. Changes in color may be difficult to detect in African Americans and in obese patients with very large breasts. You may see changes in the breast from one day to the next, and skin changes may occur in less than six months.

Though IBC represents 1-3 percent of all breast cancers, it accounts for 10 to 15 percent of all breast cancer deaths.

Other signs

Other possible signs of IBC include:

  • Increased warmth in the breast
  • One breast appearing larger and feeling warmer and/or heavier than the other
  • Pain, itching or tenderness in the breast

A non-healing sore anywhere on the breast, including the nipple: A red, scaly, flaky nipple, and any persistent skin change, including blood or fluid from the nipple, may be a sign of Paget’s disease of the breast, another rare form of breast cancer. This disease originates in the nipple. It’s not usually invasive and is most commonly diagnosed in patients in their 70s and 80s.

Swelling of axillary lymph nodes (lymph nodes in the armpit): Some patients with breast cancer that has spread to the lymph nodes may have no symptoms in the breast or changes in the structure of the breast. But they feel something unusual under their arm. This may mean that cancer from the breast has traveled to the lymph nodes. These affected nodes may also be in the lower part of the neck if the cancer is a little more advanced. Cancer cells often use the lymphatic system to invade distant organs.

It’s important to also remember that not all breast lumps are signs of cancer, a fact that underscores why it’s important to be familiar with the look and feel of your breasts. “Have an awareness of your breasts,” Dr. Lynch says. “You need to touch them to be aware. Breast self-awareness is the terminology now used instead of a self-breast exam.” 

The Breast Cancer Centers at CTCA

At each of our CTCA Breast Cancer Centers, located in our hospitals in Atlanta, Chicago and Phoenix, our cancer care experts are devoted to a single mission: treating breast cancer patients with compassion and precision.

Each patient’s care team is led by a medical oncologist and may also include a breast surgeon, radiation oncologist, radiologist, pathologist and a plastic and reconstructive surgeon. Our pathologists and oncologists are experienced and trained in tools designed to diagnose, stage and treat the many types of breast cancer, from early-stage ductal carcinoma in situ to complex diseases such as triple-negative breast cancer and IBC. Genetic counseling and genetic testing are also available for qualifying patients.

Our patient-centered care model is designed to help you keep strong during treatment. Your multidisciplinary care team may recommend various evidence-informed supportive care services, including:

The entire team works together with a whole-person focus, which is at the heart of our centers’ dedication to personalized and comprehensive care.

If you believe you’re experiencing some signs or symptoms of breast cancer and would like to talk to a breast cancer expert at CTCA about your diagnostic and treatment options, call us or chat online with a member of our team.