Pain in the armpit and breast
Breast pain isn’t a common symptom of breast cancer, however if the pain is new and persistent, speak with your doctor.
Most women will experience some sort of breast pain over the course of their life. This may be accompanied by tenderness, lumpiness, fullness, heaviness or an increase in breast size. The discomfort can also extend to the armpit. Breast pain can occur around the menstrual cycle, increasing around three to seven days before the period begins. Women can also experience it when taking hormone replacement therapy after menopause.
Other common reasons for breast and armpit pain can include stress, wearing an unsupportive bra, weight gain, injury to the breast and breast cysts or fibroadenomas.
Differences in size and shape
It’s quite common for your breasts to change due to hormone changes. Pregnancy can cause the breasts to increase by an average of two cup sizes, and your period can cause your breasts to [feel] swollen, tender or lumpy before a period begins.
It’s important you are familiar with these changes. Most changes to the breast shape and size are not cancerous, however if you are concerned or have additional symptoms, speak with your doctor.
Changes to the nipple
If there is a new change in the shape or look of your nipple, this could be a symptom of breast cancer. A cancer may be present if there is nipple inversion – that is, the nipple is pulled in and cannot be pulled out to a normal shape, and rather than forming a slit shape, the nipple is pulled in together.
Other signs are if the nipple has any scaliness or crusting, an ulcer or sore, unusual redness or a lump that can be felt behind the nipple. However, nipple inversion may also occur naturally with increasing age.
Clear and bloody nipple discharge
Most nipple discharges will not be an indicator of breast cancer. However, a cancer may be present if the nipple discharge comes out without the nipple or breast being squeezed, comes from a single duct in one nipple, is blood-stained or tests positive for blood. Also watch out for discharge that is new or occurs in a woman 60 years or older.
Changes to the skin
Most changes to the skin of the breast are due to benign conditions, like allergies. However, changes in the look and feel of the skin of the breast, such as persistent redness, a rash, a scaly appearance, puckering, unusual redness or other colour changes, or dimpling (an “orange peel” appearance) should be investigated further.
Sometimes breast cancer can look like a breast infection, but if it doesn’t respond to antibiotics, or there are unusual features, it should be further examined because it may signify the presence of inflammatory breast cancer.
Let’s talk about sex
For breast cancer patients, one subject that often doesn’t get talked about is how it can affect their sex lives. Loss of libido, menopause, fertility, body issues and psychological impacts are all things women can struggle with. But your doctor, breast cancer nurse and other health professionals are there to help.
“I think a lot of people think there’s nothing that can be done or they can’t have sex anymore or can no longer be intimate, but there are ways we can help you,” medical oncologist Dr Belinda Kiely says.
The Breast Cancer Trials Q&A event Let’s Talk About Sex is a free online event and takes place on September 30. Head to this link to register: breastcancertrials.org.au/qa-registration
How to do a self-check
- An easy place to do a breast check is in the shower or bath. Run soapy fingertips over each breast and armpit in an up-and-down motion. Then repeat this, moving in a circular motion.
- Another way to examine your breasts is in the mirror, standing with your arms by your sides, then with them raised. Look for changes in skin colour or texture, skin dimpling, nipple deformation, changes in nipple colour or fluid leaks.
- Breast checks should be done monthly. However, it’s also important to monitor your breasts at various intervals during your menstrual cycle, so that you can get to know what is normal at each stage of the month.
- If you do notice a change, don’t panic – nine out of 10 breast changes aren’t due to cancer. However, it’s essential to see your doctor if you notice any differences.
- BreastScreen Australia also recommends that women aged between 50 to 74 without breast cancer should also have a mammogram every two years.