6 Overlooked Signs of Breast Cancer

Over the last few years, and again now that my cancer has returned, many people have asked me if I had any signs of breast cancer before I found the first tumor in my breast. Yes, I did have a few of these signs, and I had pain. Please, remember to do your monthly breast self-exam and watch for these signs.

Medically reviewed by Amy Tiersten, MD — Written by Jennifer Bringle on October 5, 2020

Everyone talks about the importance of catching breast lumps as early as possible. But did you know there’s a host of lesser known breast cancer symptoms that might not show up on a self-exam or mammogram?

According to the American Cancer Society (ACA), breast cancer is the most common cancer in American women, other than skin cancers, and it’s the second-most deadly cancer for women behind lung cancer.

On average, there’s about a 1 in 8 chance that a U.S. woman will develop breast cancer at some point in their life. The ACA estimates that more than 40,000 women will die from breast cancer in 2020.

The most common form of breast cancer is invasive breast cancer, which is any type that has invaded the breast tissue.

Less common forms include inflammatory breast cancer (which is caused by cancer cells blocking lymph vessels in the skin, causing the breast to look inflamed) and Paget’s disease, which involves the skin of the nipple or areola.

With the high rates of breast cancer, the American Cancer Society recommends women have the choice to start annual mammograms at age 40. The organization says women between the ages of 45 and 54 should get mammograms every year.

And while the disease is most commonly discovered by detecting a lump during a mammogram, there are other lesser known signs and symptoms of breast cancer that women should look out for.

Nipple discharge

Unusual discharge from the nipple can be an indicator that something is wrong in the breast.

According to Marisa Weiss, MD, breast oncologist and founder of BreastCancer.org, discharge that’s bloody or pink and generally only on one side can possibly indicate the presence of cancer in the breast tissue, particularly if it’s persistent.

Skin changes

Skin changes are actually one of the most common lesser known signs of breast cancer.

“Thickness or redness of the skin, along with a little puffiness like the skin of an orange is a sign,” says Weiss. “You see dimpling where the hair follicles are, like a navel orange.”

Skin differences like thickening, dimpling, and changes in color can indicate the presence of inflammatory breast cancer.

Nipple crust

Redness, scaling, crusting, or flaking of the nipple or areola can be a sign of Paget’s disease, which can be an early indication of breast cancer.

The skin changes on the nipples often look like more benign conditions like psoriasis or eczema, but don’t respond to traditional treatments for those issues and instead worsen.

New shape or increase in breast size

An enlarged breast — particularly if the swelling is isolated to one breast — or a change in the shape of the breast, can indicate issues within the tissue.

“An unusual shape where the contour is distorted and there’s a bulge in one part of the breast can be a sign of cancer,” says Weiss.

“It could feel like a lump, but it could also just be a region of the breast that feels firmer, and you can’t really feel a lump within it,” she says. “It also often becomes more pronounced when moving in different positions.”

Inverted nipple

A nipple that looks flat or inverted, as well as a nipple that points in a different direction than it once did, can be a sign of breast cancer.

“Instead of pointing straight outward or downward, it no longer looks in the same direction, but in a different spot,” says Weiss.

A flat or inverted nipple is another sign of Paget’s disease.

Red or hot spots

Red or hot spots on the breast, sometimes covering the entire breast, can be an indicator of inflammatory breast cancer.

While red or hot spots can also indicate mastitis — inflammation of breast tissue due to infection, most often experienced during lactation — mastitis symptoms are usually accompanied by fever.

Red or hot spots without fever that persist and don’t improve can mean breast cancer is present.

The takeaway

Weiss says it’s important to remember that these signs and symptoms can indicate other benign issues that aren’t breast cancer, but it’s critical to monitor the symptoms and act if they don’t subside.

And for those who’ve already had breast cancer, it can be even more difficult to discern the innocuous from the malignant. In that case, Weiss says it’s particularly crucial to monitor changes in the breasts and alert your doctor when something doesn’t look or feel right.

“You’re always worried about recurrence of a new problem, so the ability to recognize the less common symptoms and signs may be a little trickier,” she says.

It’s sometimes difficult to distinguish between leftover scar tissue from your prior breast cancer. And if you’ve had mastectomy and reconstruction, you could have lumps and bumps in there that are due to scar tissue from all the healing where they removed and recreated your breast, says Weiss.

No matter what, Weiss advises women to pay attention to their bodies and maintain regular self-exams and mammograms. And should they notice something out of the ordinary? Let their doctor know.

Jennifer Bringle has written for Glamour, Good Housekeeping, and Parents, among other outlets. She’s working on a memoir about her post-cancer experience.

CT Guided Biopsy

A few days ago, I had a CT Guided Biopsy of my 8th rib on the left side, on my back. Everything went well; I am in a little bit of pain, but nothing that Tylenol can’t help. The doctor instructed me to rest for the rest of the day on Thursday, remove my bandage on Friday, and resume my normal activities.

After finishing my paperwork in the hospital registration office, I went to the lab to have my blood drawn for a few panels; among a few other things, they had to check my kidney function before doing the CT, and after that, I went to radiology to wait to be taken to the pre-op area.

Once my nurse was done prepping me for my procedure, my anesthesiologist came to get me and take me to the CT room. He explained that he would only give me enough medication to make me relaxed and a little sleepy but not entirely out. He said that if I did get sleepy not fight it and let myself fall asleep. I did fall asleep for some of the procedure, but I don’t think it was for very long because the process only took about 30 minutes.

When I walked into the CT room, they had me lay on my stomach on the CT table. I was shocked to find out that the lesion is actually on my 8th rib on the left side of my back, not in the front, and it is very close to my spine, so that has me a bit concerned. The rib that I fractured some 18 years ago, that I was thinking was what was showing up in my scans, was a few ribs down from where the lesion is located, so it has nothing to do with the lesion at all. So with that said, I don’t know what to expect when I meet with my oncologist next Tuesday to get my biopsy results.

I have had many people ask me what I think of all of this, how I am feeling, and what my gut is telling me. I can’t help but see the similarities to the first time I went through cancer three years ago. With every appointment, things get worse and worse, more scans, more biopsies, etc. As before, I want to know what type of cancer I have to fight against, and I want to get started on whatever treatment plan my doctors and I agree on as soon as possible so I can get this over with and move on.

I am feeling OK so far. Even if the lesion on my rib is positive for cancer, it appears to be localized like the tumors in my neck, so it is not as aggressive as it was in 2019, and because of that, I have been feeling much better physically this time around so far. Mentally I am up and down; the stress is unreal because this is the moment as a cancer survivor that I have been fearful of, having to deal with recurrence.

Lastly, what is my gut telling me? I will be shocked if the lesion on my rib is negative for cancer. After reading the PET scan report and looking up a few medical terms that I had not seen before, I immediately thought that it would be a bad result once the biopsy results came in. I, of course, hope that I am wrong, and in a few days, I will know for sure.

I Have Cancer, Again

I received my biopsy results yesterday, and they were positive for cancer. My oncologist’s office called me in the morning and scheduled an appointment right away for today to discuss our next steps.

I was hoping that my oncologist could tell me what type of cancer I have today, but we do not have those results back yet, so I will hopefully know in a few more days. There are a couple of possibilities as far as my treatment goes, but I won’t have a definite plan until scans are done, and the results are back.

On Monday, I will be going to the hospital for a bone scan-nuclear medicine, CT neck with contrast, and CT C/A/P with contrast {ct scan of chest, abdomen, and pelvis.} If there is cancer anywhere besides my neck, we will know for sure once the scans are completed and analyzed.

On Friday next week, I will meet with my oncologist to review the scan results and my treatment plan. I do know that I will most likely have radiation therapy on my neck; anything beyond that will be determined during my appointment.

More to come…

Ultrasound-Guided Biopsy: **WARNING: SENSITIVE MATERIAL**

So here we are again, another biopsy, just shy of a few weeks from three years ago when my surgeon did my first biopsy and diagnosed me with breast cancer.

This time I was only in pain when my surgeon gave me the shot of lidocaine. He kept asking me if I was OK because the needle was in for a little bit as he moved it around at different angles to numb the area around the mass. I was facing away from him so he couldn’t see my face for a reaction, so I appreciated him asking me how I was doing multiple times, as it was just another example of what a kind and caring doctor he is.

I had to lay on my right side so he could easily get to the mass because it was at an odd angle on my neck. Since I was lying on my side, I was able to watch the ultrasound monitor and see him put each needle in the mass, collect a sample, then pull the needle back out. As he put each sample into a small container with a tiny amount of saline, his assistant closed each container; there were three in total. He said that the mass is about 1 centimeter, so I hopefully caught it early enough.

All in all, everything went fine. I should have the results back at the latest on Tuesday. I couldn’t help but notice that my surgeon told me that he was taking the samples over to the lab personally, right away. Yes, that did concern me a little, his urgency, and that only made my gut feeling about all of this feel more valid. He also told me that he spoke with my oncologist and that if my results are positive, my oncologist will order the PET scan asap.

Minor bruising today, along with a small hematoma. I am very, very sore, but you would be too if you had four needles poked in you!

My gut feeling is based on these events, are they coincidences? This mass is very much like the first one three years ago in many ways. It feels the same and looks the same on the ultrasound, and there is something else, each time I have had pain in another part of my body before finding a mass. I first had pain in my neck, shoulder, and shoulder blade a few weeks before finding my tumor. I thought I had slept funny, but as the days went by, the pain did not go away. This time, around Thanksgiving, I had terrible pain on the outside of my ear, going up the side of my head to the top of my head. As I said in a previous post, my oncologist ordered an MRI of my head, but it was clear, so we had no explanation for my pain. I was in agony until about two weeks ago when the pain suddenly stopped, and I now have found another mass.

I will update as soon as I have the results…prayers! 💕

Sorry I Have Been Away, Time To Catch Up

I am sorry that I have been away from here for over five months. I have been dealing with some complicated things, and it has been challenging for me to come here and write about them. This is where I can release my thoughts with the hope of feeling better, but I haven’t been able to do that until now. Even now, I might not share everything with you because I feel like I can’t. I know I said that I would always be very open with my readers when I started this blog, but some things have happened that I am not comfortable with sharing just yet, and I may never be. With all of that said, here is a quick recap of my appointment with my surgeon in September and my oncologist in December of 2021.

In September, I had my annual mammogram and ultrasound followed by an appointment with my surgeon to find out the imaging results and have my yearly checkup. My imaging was clear, and my exam went well. My scars are fading; everything has healed beautifully and looks as it should, so that was excellent news! I have noticed that many women I know who have gone through breast cancer have a mammogram and ultrasound every six months, where I have them every 12 months, so I asked my surgeon about it. He said that it is unnecessary to have them more often than 12 months unless I notice an issue. As usual, my surgeon answered my questions and put my mind at ease, reminding me that I have the best doctor for me and my needs.

My appointment with my oncologist in December was both good and frustrating. Around Thanksgiving, I started having pain on the left side of my head, and at times it hurt so bad that I had to take some of the oxycodone that I had leftover from my surgeries and chemo. The pain went from just outside of my ear, up the side of my head, and over to the top of my head. My oncologist wasn’t overly concerned about me having a tumor in my brain but to be sure, I had an MRI just before Christmas. My MRI came back clear, so that was frustrating only because I had no explanation for the pain and discomfort I was in 24/7 by that time. So the pain continued until suddenly, one day in mid-January, I realized that the pain was gone, and it has not come back since. I still have no idea of what was causing me so much pain, but I am so happy that it is gone. The good parts about my appointment are that my blood panels came back normal for the first time since I started chemo in May 2019. Even more good news is that on October 3rd, the day of my final chemo treatment in 2019, I reached my first significant milestone; I made it to my second anniversary of being cancer-free! I am incredibly grateful that I have made it through the first two years, and I am hopeful that I will continue to stay healthy and cancer-free until my next milestone in another three years, at five years.

If you know me on Facebook, you know what has happened in the past two days; if you don’t, please read my next post which will be posted later tonight, where I explain what is happening with me now.

Appointment With My Oncologist

When I had my appointment with my oncologist on August 5th, I was hoping that my red blood cell count would finally be in the normal range, but it isn’t quite there yet. I wasn’t too surprised as I have been tired lately and not feeling the greatest. At this point, nothing but time will help, so I am trying to be patient.

I am still having a lot of issues with my memory. It seems like only my short-term memory is being affected, but it is starting to drive me crazy. My oncologist asked me if I am still “fuzzy,” and I said that yes, I am still having issues. So, I am taking a week off Anastrozole to see if it helps clear my head or not.

Once I have my next appointment in December, I will finally be on a different schedule with my oncologist. I will switch from seeing him every three or four months to every six months. I am making progress, and it feels good!

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