Breast Cancer: What Are the Symptoms?

The most common breast cancer symptom is a lump. Other symptoms include swelling, skin irritation, nipple pain or retraction, and an unusual discharge.

Early diagnosis saves lives.The combination of a mammogram, a clinical breast exam and self-exams is recommended by healthcare experts to reduce breast-cancer deaths.

A mammogram is a breast x-ray. If mammography finds an abnormality, confirmation by biopsy is required. In a biopsy, a tissue sample is taken for analysis.

About 2/10 percent of mammograms lead to a cancer diagnosis. About 10 percent of women examined will need another mammogram. Only about 10 percent of those women will need a biopsy. Out of those biopsies, 80 percent will come back negative for cancer.

Women 40 and older should have an annual mammogram and breast exam by a healthcare professional. As long as a woman is in good health and would be a candidate for treatment, she should continue to get mammograms and exams.

Research has shown that self exams help find breast cancer. Self examination teaches  women how their breasts feel normally and to notice changes.

Ultrasound and MRI are other diagnostic tools.

Ultrasound uses high-frequency sound waves to outline a part of the body. Breast ultrasound can focus upon something picked up by a mammogram.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) use radio waves and strong magnets instead of x-rays. They can be used to examine cancers found by mammogram.

Most women with breast cancer have some type of surgery. Surgeries include lumpectomy to remove only the breast lump and surrounding tissue, a mastectomy that removes part or all of the breast or can be more extensive to include lymph nodes and muscle tissue.

Radiation therapy is another form of treatment. It uses high-energy rays or particles that destroy cancer cells. This treatment may be used to destroy cancer cells that remain in the breast, chest wall, or underarm area after surgery.

Medicines are also used to treat breast cancer. Chemotherapy employs intravenous and oral drugs that can kill cancer cells in most parts of the body. The anti-estrogen drug tamoxifen has been used for more than 20 years to treat breast cancer.

Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) to treat menopause symptoms and its relationship to breast cancer has become a controversial issue. Unfortunately, many women experience menopausal symptoms after treatment for breast cancer.

In the past, doctors had offered HRT after breast-cancer treatment to women suffering from severe symptoms. However, recently, a study found that breast cancer survivors taking HRT were much more likely to develop a new or recurrent breast cancer than women who were not taking the drugs. This study discouraged doctors from recommending HRT to breast-cancer patients.

Phytoestrogens, estrogen-like substances, may be safer than the estrogens used in HRT. However, there is insufficient data on phytoestrogens to evaluate their safety for breast cancer survivors.

Fred Cicetti is a contributing writer for Live Science who specializes in health. He has been writing professionally since 1963. Before he began freelancing, he was a reporter, rewriteman and columnist for three daily newspapers in New Jersey: The Newark News, Newark Star-Ledger and Morristown Record. He has written two published novels:" Saltwater Taffy—A Summer at the Jersey Shore," and "Local Angles—Big News in Small Towns."