Woman performing a self-check exam for breast cancer

Here’s what I want you to know: Not all breast cancers present with a palpable lump (one that you can feel during a breast exam).

There are at least 5 other symptoms strongly correlated to breast cancer and I am going to share those with you. 

But first, a gentle note to my recently postpartum readers: Although we’re postpartum and that may dominate our lives right now, we’re still at risk for other conditions of our breasts and reproductive system.

While the median age of breast cancer diagnosis is 60, women (and folks of all genders with an estrogen-based reproductive system) in their 20s have a 0.1 % chance of developing breast cancer. Women in their 30s have a 0.5% chance of developing breast cancer. And women in their 40s have a 1.5% chance. For a woman who is 40, that is a 1 in 68 chance that she will receive a diagnosis. 1 in 8 women will develop breast cancer in their lifetimes and younger women are not immune.

I know, I know- I’m a ray of fucking sunshine. But please don’t let this information scare you- use this information to spur you to be vigilant and keep up with recommended screenings. Because the earlier you find things, the better the prognosis and less aggressive the treatment.

5 signs or symptoms of breast cancer that you should not ignore

Here’s what I’ve learned since my own breast cancer diagnosis:

There are a number of ways to detect breast cancer that have nothing to do with a lump. That’s because breast cancer isn’t one disease- it’s umbrella for a bunch of different type of cancers that can all occur in the breast.

In addition to feeling a lump in the breast or armpit, breast cancer can present as:

1. A new thickening in the breast.

Especially if it is asymmetric (present only in one breast).

2. Dimpling or indentations in the skin.

If ANYTHING looks funky or asymmetrical, get it checked out.

3. Changes to the nipple: inversions, hardening, scabbing or flaking.

Especially if it’s only present in one breast. Noticing a trend here?

4. Nipple discharge- especially if it’s bloody and especially if it’s only coming from one breast.

I want to metaphorically star this one, because this is the one that flagged my screening. Nipple discharge can start out subtle- like a small spot in your bra.

Personally, when I noticed this I didn’t worry because it hadn’t been so long since I breastfed my son. I was used to nipple discharge.

If you think you’re done lactating and you still have discharge, get it checked out.

5. Changes to the color or thickness of the skin on the breast.

If it’s a change to your breast, call it in. There’s never harm in checking it out.

Early detection and outlook

During this chapter, in which your breasts are undergoing so many changes related to your pregnancy and lactation, it’s even more important to know what’s normal and what’s not. Learn the possible signs and symptoms of breast cancer so you can be proactive. Today, the outlook for breast cancer patients is bright thanks to earlier detection and advances in treatment options.

Don’t skip your annual GYN checkups. Don’t put off your screening mammograms. Ask your doctor or midwife questions when ever you have concerns.

If you have a close family member with breast cancer, the recommendation is to begin screening mammograms 10 years earlier than their age at diagnosis. 10 years feels like a pretty arbitrary number, but it would have made a difference for me.

Early detection saves lives.


The New Generation Breast Cancer Book by Elisa Port, MD (The most optimistic breast cancer book and my source for breast cancer signs and symptoms)

Dr. Michael Hunter’s Breast Cancer Book by Dr. Micheal Hunter (This is my radiation oncologist- also an incredibley optomistic human and his book is encylopedic. This is my source for the stats in this post).

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