Many women diagnosed with breast cancer share a common experience: They feel a lump that wasn't there before, which ultimately turns out to be cancerous. It's why women are told to be familiar enough with what their breasts feel like to notice any such changes.
But a lump isn't the only symptom of breast cancer. In fact, preliminary research presented recently at the UK-based National Cancer Research Institute's 2016 conference suggests that one in six women diagnosed with breast cancer first report a symptom other than a lump. Because there's not as much awareness of these less common symptoms, the researchers hypothesized that so-called "atypical presentations" could be delaying some women's diagnoses. Of course, an earlier diagnosis results in earlier treatment, which typically tends to work best, says Joseph Weber, M.D., a breast surgical oncologist at Aurora Health Care in Milwaukee. (There are also totally normal reasons your breasts could feel lumpy.)
Of course, that's not to say you should stop inspecting your breasts. In the new study, 83 percent of the women who had breast cancer symptoms and were diagnosed found a lump first. But a little more awareness of other signs can't hurt. "Our results highlight opportunities for a shift in emphasis in symptom awareness campaigns toward breast symptoms other than breast lump," the researchers write. "If women notice any changes in their breasts, they need to have a professional evaluate them," Weber agrees. "Talk to a doctor about anything that looks different from their normal appearance." Here are a few of those symptoms to watch out for.
Dimpling or scaly skin
A rough patch of skin that feels scaly or thicker than usual or skin that starts to dimple can signal breast cancer, Weber says. With some breast cancers, channels that go from the inside of the breast to the skin become blocked, resulting in skin changes that make the breast look like it's covered in an orange peel.
Sometimes a lump can be lurking under the surface, even if a woman can't feel it. This might change the shape or size of a breast, and could even result in some pain, which 6 percent of women in the recent research reported.
Some breast cancers will cause what's called nipple inversion or retraction, in which the nipple turns inward. Typically, that's because a mass is growing inside the breast and changes its shape, Weber explains. In the recent research, 7 percent of the women who were diagnosed with breast cancer reported nipple abnormalities.
Another possible nipple abnormality can be discharge that's not breast milk. Nipple discharge is, thankfully, most often not cancer, but it's important to see a doctor immediately if the discharge comes out without you touching or squeezing the nipple, especially if it's bloody and only affecting one side.