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Breast cancer symptoms

October 9, 2020 • read

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Breast cancer symptoms

One in eight Canadian women will have breast cancer at some point in their lives. Although that’s a scary number, it may comfort you to know that there are usually early warning signs that breast cancer is developing. 

The old wisdom of doing breast self-examinations is outdated. Most breast lumps are benign, and self-examinations can cause you to over-analyze and panic. Leave the examinations to your doctor. It’s recommended to start having screening mammograms in your 40s.

It’s helpful to know the warning signs of breast cancer so you can be aware but not anxious. If you have a family history of breast cancer, you’ll want to pay extra attention to changes in your breasts. Seeing your doctor if you’re worried is a good course of action, but rest assured that most symptoms aren’t necessarily indicators of cancer. 

Skin changes

When you have breast cancer, changes to the skin on your breast can include:

  • Dimpling, where skin texture is similar to an orange peel.
  • Scaly skin, especially around the nipple.
  • Redness.
  • Swelling.
  • Areas where skin is thickening, especially near your underarm.
  • Discharge from the nipple.

Changes to your skin can also be a sign of a rare condition called inflammatory breast cancer (IBC). About 1-5% of breast cancer cases are IBC. The skin on your breast has lymph vessels that are responsible for transporting blood and other fluids through the skin. With IBC, the cancer cells block the lymph vessels and cause swelling and redness. It’s an aggressive cancer that needs to be treated as early as possible.

Weight loss

If you’re losing weight without trying, it could be a sign of breast cancer. Unexplained weight loss of over ten pounds is cause for concern. Breast cancer commonly spreads to bones, and when the bones break down, they release calcium. Elevated calcium levels can stop you from feeling hungry, also causing weight loss.


If you’ve had breast cancer that’s gone untreated, there are a few common areas of your body that cancer can spread to. If the cancer infects your other organs, it’s called secondary or metastatic breast cancer. Your lungs, brain, and bones are the most likely areas for secondary breast cancer. Severe headaches are a brain cancer symptom.


Jaundice is when your skin, the whites of your eyes, and your mucous membranes turn yellow. It’s a common sign of liver problems. With breast cancer, jaundice is an indication that the cancer has spread to the liver. The cancer cells disrupt your liver’s healthy tissue cells, causing high levels of bilirubin — a yellow chemical your body uses to break down red blood cells. When bilirubin levels get too high, it’s a sign your liver is struggling to do its job and clear toxins out of your body.

Bone pain

When breast cancer has spread to the bone, it can be really painful. When this happens, the bones most often affected are:

  • Longer bones in the arms and legs.
  • The spine.
  • The ribs.
  • The pelvis.

If breast cancer has metastasized to the bones, you can start to have mobility issues. It can also come with tingling or dizziness, which is a sign that the nerves along your spinal cord are being pinched by fractured vertebrae. 

Breast sensitivity

Breast sensitivity happens for lots of reasons, so if you’re experiencing it, don’t panic. It could be a sign of hormonal changes in your body, like before menstruation or during menopause. With breast cancer, sharp pain in the breasts is rare. But breast sensitivity happens sometimes if skin changes caused by breast cancer, like flaky skin, become irritating. Inflammatory breast cancer also causes breast pain.

Itchy nipples

Itchiness in the nipple and breast area is a symptom of a rare form of breast cancer called Paget disease. With Paget, cancer is found in the nipple duct, and often in the skin around the nipple too. People with Paget disease usually have more cancerous tumours in their breast as well. But just like breast sensitivity, there are lots of other reasons for itchy nipples. Skin irritation like eczema can cause the nipples to itch, as well as allergic reactions to body wash or detergents. 

Nipple discharge

With breast cancer, nipple discharge is usually one of a combination of changes you notice in the affected breast. Other signs related to discharge to watch for include:

  • Discharge is only coming from one breast and not the other.
  • The way the discharge looks. With breast cancer the discharge is usually either bloody or clear.
  • You also have a lump in your breast.
  • There’s no other potential reasons for discharge you can think of, like breastfeeding.
  • You notice the discharge frequently.

Discharge can be varying textures, from thin to thick, and it can sometimes be sticky. There are also non-cancerous tumours called papillomas that cause nipple discharge. Your doctor can help you determine the cause with testing.

Double vision

Breast cancer that spreads to your cranial nerves can cause double vision. There are 12 pairs of cranial nerves running from the front to the back of your brain. They control muscle movement, like the kind required to move your eyes properly. Rarely, secondary breast cancer that spreads to the brain can put pressure on the nerve responsible for eye movement, causing double vision.

If you’re wondering what your risk factors for breast cancers are, or if you’ve been diagnosed, an oncology navigator can help you better understand your outlook. You can speak to an oncology navigator online for reassurance, education, and support.

See an oncology navigator online

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