Breast Cancer Symptoms & Types

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Some breast cancers never have symptoms. But symptoms can develop as the breast cancer grows. And different types of breast cancer can cause different symptoms. There are several types of breast cancer. The most common types start in the breast's milk passages (ducts) or milk glands. A rare type of breast cancer, doesn't cause a lump.

Learn more about the different types of breast cancer and their related symptoms so you can catch it as early as possible.

Breast Cancer Symptoms

As breast cancer grows, you might notice changes to your breast. You'll want to mention these signs to your primary care provider. And you may need testing to see if the symptoms are caused by breast cancer. Both women and men should watch for:

  • A lump or thickening (a mass, swelling, skin irritation, or distortion) in or near the breast or in the underarm area

  • A change in the size or shape of the breast

  • A change in the color or feel of the skin of the breast, areola, or nipple (dimpled, puckered, or scaly)

  • Nipple discharge, erosion, inversion (pointing inward), or tenderness

Screening Catches Breast Cancer Before Symptoms

Early breast cancer usually doesn't cause pain. And it may cause no breast cancer symptoms at all. That's why regular breast cancer screening, like a mammogram, is important. Mammograms are very good at uncovering breast cancer when it's tiny and long before it starts to cause symptoms.

Diagnosing Breast Cancer After Screening or Symptoms

If a mammogram shows something concerning, you might then need a diagnostic test. You might also need a diagnostic test if you develop symptoms of breast cancer.

Diagnosing breast cancer requires a biopsy procedure. This tells us for sure if a breast lump is cancer or something else.

Learn more about the different types of biopsy available at UVA Health and what to expect.

Early Signs of Breast Cancer

Breast cancer specialist Christiana Brenin, MD, lists the early symptoms of breast cancer. Both men and women should watch for these signs. View breast cancer symptoms transcript.

Breast Cancer Types

There are many types of breast cancer. Sometimes a breast tumor can be a combination of types. 

Ductal Carcinoma in Situ (DCIS) 

This is the most common type of non-invasive breast cancer. DCIS grows only in the ducts. It hasn't spread through the walls of the ducts into the tissue of the breast.

We can cure nearly all women with cancer at this stage. Often the best way to find DCIS early is with a mammogram.

Lobular Carcinoma in Situ (LCIS) 

This condition begins in the milk-making glands. It doesn't go through the wall of the lobules.

Although not a true cancer, having LCIS increases a woman's risk of getting cancer later. For this reason, if you have LCIS, you need to follow the screening guidelines for breast cancer.

Invasive (infiltrating) Ductal Carcinoma (IDC) 

This is the most common type of invasive breast cancer. It starts in a milk passage or duct, breaks through the wall of the duct, then invades the breast tissue. From there it can spread to other parts of the body. It accounts for about 8 out of 10 invasive breast cancers.

Invasive (infiltrating) Lobular Carcinoma (ILC) 

This cancer starts in the milk glands or lobules. It can spread to other parts of the body. About 1 out of 10 invasive breast cancers are of this type.

Inflammatory Breast Cancer (IBC) 

This uncommon type of invasive breast cancer accounts for about 1% to 3% of all breast cancers. Cancer cells blocking lymph vessels in the skin cause the inflammation. No single lump or tumor appears. Instead, this type of breast cancer makes a person's breast:

  • Larger
  • Firmer
  • Tender
  • Itchy
  • Red
  • Warm
  • Have a thick, pitted appearance that looks a lot like an orange peel

Providers can mistake this disease for an infection. Without a lump, mammograms can't always catch this cancer. These factors give this cancer a higher chance of spreading and a worsens the outlook. 

Men can get breast cancer, too. Until they reach puberty, the breast area in boys and girls develops in the same way. By the time boys reach their teens, however, hormones keep the breasts from developing. Like women, men have ducts and lobes in their breast area but in far smaller numbers.

Causes of Breast Cancer

Although we still do not know what causes cancer, new and powerful options can successfully detect and fight breast cancer. The most important factor is catching cancer early, when it is most treatable — or closely monitoring women who may be at increased risk. Even more important is the chance to prevent cancer in some women who are known to have the highest risk for breast cancer.

As a NCI-designated comprehensive cancer center, UVA offers both advanced cancer detection and treatment options, as well as personal support for you and your family.