Breast Cancer Signs and Symptoms

Medically Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on March 17, 2023
6 min read

Breast cancer can have different symptoms for different people. Most don’t notice any signs at all.

The most common symptom is a lump in your breast or armpit. Others include skin changes, pain, a nipple that pulls inward, and unusual discharge from your nipple.

Common symptoms of breast cancer include:

  • A lump in your breast or underarm that doesn’t go away. This is often the first symptom of breast cancer. Your doctor can usually see a lump on a mammogram long before you can see or feel it.
  • Swelling in your armpit or near your collarbone. This could mean breast cancer has spread to lymph nodes in that area. Swelling may start before you feel a lump, so let your doctor know if you notice it.
  • Pain and tenderness, although lumps don’t usually hurt. Some may cause a prickly feeling.
  • A flat or indented area on your breast. This could happen because of a tumor that you can’t see or feel.
  • Breast changes such as a difference in the size, contour, texture, or temperature of your breast.
  • Changes in your nipple, like one that:
    • Pulls inward
    • Is dimpled
    • Burns
    • Itches
    • Develops sores
  • Unusual nipple discharge. It could be clear, bloody, or another color.
  • A marble-like area under your skin that feels different from any other part of either breast.

There are several kinds of breast cancer. Many of them share symptoms.

Symptoms of ductal carcinoma

This is the most common type of breast cancer. It begins in your ducts. About 1 in 5 new breast cancers are ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS). This means you have cancer in the cells that line your ducts, but it hasn’t spread into nearby tissue.

You may not notice any symptoms of ductal carcinoma. It can also cause a breast lump or bloody discharge.

Symptoms of lobular carcinoma

This kind begins in the glands that make milk, called lobules. It’s the second most common type of breast cancer. Symptoms include:

  • Fullness, thickening, or swelling in one area
  • Nipples that are flat or point inward (inverted)

Symptoms of invasive breast cancer

Breast cancer that’s spread from where it began into the tissues around it is called invasive or infiltrating. You may notice:

  • A lump in your breast or armpit. You might not be able to move it separately from your skin or move it at all.
  • One breast that looks different from the other
  • A rash or skin that’s thick, red, or dimpled like an orange
  • Skin sores
  • Swelling in your breast
  • Small, hard lymph nodes that may be stuck together or stuck to your skin
  • Pain in one spot

Symptoms of metastatic breast cancer

Without treatment, breast cancer can spread to other parts of your body, including other organs. This is called metastatic, advanced, or secondary breast cancer. Depending on where it is, you may have:

Symptoms of triple-negative breast cancer

Breast cancer is called triple-negative if it doesn’t have receptors for the hormones estrogen and progesterone and doesn’t make a lot of a protein called HER2. This kind tends to grow and spread faster than other types, and doctors treat it differently.

Triple-negative tumors make up 10% to 15% of breast cancers. They cause the same symptoms as other common types. Get an overview on triple-negative breast cancer symptoms and treatment.

Symptoms of male breast cancer

About 1% of breast cancers happen in men. Because it’s so rare, you may not pay attention to the symptoms until the cancer has grown. Watch for:

  • A lump or thick spot in your breast or armpit
  • Changes in the skin of your breast or nipple, such as redness, puckering, scales, or discharge

Learn more about breast cancer in men.

Symptoms of Paget’s disease of the breast

This type often happens along with ductal carcinoma. It affects the skin of your nipple and areola. Symptoms may look like eczema and include:

  • Nipple skin that’s crusted, scaly, and red
  • Bloody or yellow discharge from the nipple
  • A flat or inverted nipple
  • Burning or itching

Read more on the causes and symptoms of Paget's disease.

Symptoms of inflammatory breast cancer (IBC)

Inflammatory breast cancer is a rare type that causes symptoms similar to an infection. They include:

  • A breast that’s warm, swollen, and red
  • Skin that’s dimpled, leathery, or ridged
  • A nipple that turns inward
  • Unusual nipple discharge

Symptoms of papillary carcinoma

This is a very rare type of ductal cancer. It’s named for the tiny lumps, or papules, on the tumor. Common symptoms include:

  • A small, hard cyst
  • Bloody discharge from the nipple

Symptoms of angiosarcoma

Fewer than 2% of breast cancers are angiosarcomas. These start in the cells that line your blood vessels or lymph nodes. Angiosarcoma may cause:

  • A lump in your breast
  • A purple area of skin that looks like a bruise
  • Skin that bleeds easily when scratched or bumped
  • Pain in one area

Breast lumps are common and usually aren’t cancer. Other conditions that can cause them include:

  • Fibroadenoma. This causes smooth, round lumps. You can move them, and they don’t hurt.
  • Fibrocystic changes. You may have cysts, pain, or tenderness.
  • Breast infections. Small sacs of pus (abscesses) often happen after childbirth.
  • Clogged milk glands
  • Injuries that form scar tissue

Talk to your doctor if you notice any kind of lump in your breast or armpit. Get medical care as soon as possible if you also have signs of an infection such as redness, swelling, or discharge. Find out more on causes and types of breast lumps.

Breast cancer can come back, or recur, long after treatment. It may be in the same breast (local), in the lymph nodes near the original cancer (regional), or in a part of your body that’s farther away (metastatic or distant).

Cancer is most likely to come back in the first 2 years after treatment. After that period, the risk goes down over time.

Your doctor will talk with you about what to watch for. Local symptoms include:

  • A new lump in your breast
  • Changes in your breast, nipple, or skin
  • Lumps on the skin of your chest
  • Thickening on or near the scar from surgery to remove a breast (mastectomy)

Mastectomy and surgery to replace a breast (reconstruction) may lead to a buildup of scar tissue or fat cells. These lumps aren’t cancer. But it’s important to let your doctor know about them and watch for changes.

Symptoms of regional recurrence include:

  • A lump or swelling under your arm, above your collarbone, or on your chest
  • Swelling in your arm
  • Pain or numbness in your arm or shoulder
  • Constant pain in your chest
  • Trouble swallowing

Symptoms of metastatic recurrence depend on what body part is affected. The most common places are your bones, lungs, brain, and liver. You may have:

Know more about what to expect when breast cancer comes back.