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Spotting trouble: 10 red flags that could signal breast cancer

With October observed as Breast Cancer Awareness Month, an expert details out what you must look out for to detect breast cancer early

Women over 40 are recommended to go for regular mammography for prevention and early detection of breast cancer,
Women over 40 are recommended to go for regular mammography for prevention and early detection of breast cancer, (Unsplash/National Cancer Institute)

Breast cancer continues to be a pervasive issue among women globally, with a particularly high prevalence in developing countries like India. It stands as the most common cancer, constituting nearly 25% of all female cancers in India's urban areas. Traditionally associated with women over the age of 40, breast cancer is increasingly being diagnosed in younger individuals as well. Detecting breast cancer in its early stages offers a high likelihood of complete cure, and screening mammography plays a crucial role in achieving this. It is essential for all women to remain vigilant and familiarize themselves with potential warning signs and symptoms of breast cancer. Here are 10 signs to look out for:

Lumps in the breast: A significant indicator of breast cancer is the presence of a lump in the breast. Although not all breast lumps are cancerous, any newly discovered painless lump should be thoroughly investigated to rule out the possibility of breast cancer. Cancerous lumps are often irregular in shape, immobile, and firm to the touch, usually devoid of pain. In some cases, these lumps can vary in size and texture, presenting as hard masses or thickened areas. It's crucial for individuals to conduct regular self-examinations, feeling for any abnormal lumps or changes in the breast tissue. 

Prompt reporting of any findings to a healthcare professional is essential for early detection and timely intervention. Additionally, routine screenings such as mammograms and ultrasounds, play a crucial role in detecting and confirming the presence of these lumps, enabling appropriate diagnosis and treatment planning.

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Skin changes over the breast: Skin changes over the breast can provide valuable indicators of breast cancer. These changes may manifest as dimpling, tethering, swelling, redness, ulceration or the formation of nodules. While these alterations are typically associated with advanced stages of the disease, early breast cancer can present with skin tethering. Changes in skin texture or appearance should be monitored closely and reported to a healthcare provider for further evaluation. Monitoring these changes diligently and seeking prompt medical attention is vital to catch potential breast cancer early.

Swelling and ‘orange peel’ appearance: Swelling of the breast, often accompanied by an ‘orange peel’ appearance of the skin due to lymphatic obstruction by cancer cells, should raise immediate concern. The ‘orange peel’ appearance, technically termed peau d’orange, occurs due to blocked lymph vessels caused by cancer cells. This condition can be indicative of Inflammatory Breast Cancer (IBC), a rare but aggressive type of breast cancer. Early detection and intervention are crucial in managing IBC and improving prognosis. Any unusual swelling or skin changes should be promptly addressed by a healthcare professional for a comprehensive evaluation and appropriate next steps.

Nipple discharge: Nipple discharge, especially when blood-stained, brown, or clear serous, should be taken seriously, as it is present in approximately 40% of breast cancer patients. Any changes in the nipple, such as retraction or deviation towards a lump, should also raise concern.

Asymmetry of the breasts: Asymmetry of the breasts, where one breast appears noticeably different in size or shape compared to the other, could be a sign of breast cancer and should be evaluated.

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Enlarged lymph nodes: Palpable lumps in the underarm (enlarged lymph nodes) should be examined by a healthcare professional to rule out potential breast cancer, especially if associated with other concerning symptoms.

Inflammatory breast changes: Particularly aggressive breast cancer variants like IBC can cause extensive redness and swelling of the breast. Early diagnosis and immediate intervention are critical in such cases.

Generalised symptoms: Unexplained weight loss, loss of appetite, and generalized weakness can be indicative of various health issues, including breast cancer, and should be promptly investigated.

Metastatic symptoms: Symptoms like bone pain, chronic cough, jaundice, or neurological symptoms may suggest metastasis, a late stage of breast cancer. 

Age and family history: Individuals with a family history of breast cancer should undergo regular screenings to detect any abnormalities early on. Regular screenings, particularly mammography for women aged 40 and above and sonography for those under 40, are recommended.

To conclude, awareness and proactive healthcare are our strongest allies in this battle against breast cancer. Staying vigilant, understanding these warning signs, and seeking prompt medical attention for any concerning symptoms are pivotal steps in the early detection and successful treatment of breast cancer.

Dr. Swati Suradkar is consultant breast surgeon at Ruby Hall Clinic, Pune.

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