Breast Cancer Symptoms & Types

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Early breast cancer usually doesn't cause pain and may cause no symptoms at all. And some breast cancers never cause symptoms or other indications of a problem.

As the cancer grows, however, it can cause changes that women and men should watch for, such as:

  • 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

Breast Cancer Types

There are many types of breast cancer, though some are very rare. Sometimes a breast tumor can be a combination of types. Among the most common:

Ductal Carcinoma in Situ (DCIS) 

This is the most common type of non-invasive breast cancer. DCIS means that the cancer is only in the ducts and has not spread through the walls of the ducts into the tissue of the breast. Nearly all women with cancer at this stage can be cured. 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 but 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, it's important that women with LCIS 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 and invades the tissue of the breast. 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 percent of all breast cancers. Usually there is no single lump or tumor. Instead, inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) makes the skin of the breast look red and feel warm. It also gives the skin a thick, pitted appearance that looks a lot like an orange peel. Doctors now know that these changes are not caused by inflammation or infection, but by cancer cells blocking lymph vessels in the skin. The breast may become larger, firmer, tender or itchy. IBC is often mistaken for an infection in its early stages. Because there is no defined lump, it may not appear on a mammogram, which may make it even harder to catch it early. It usually has a higher chance of spreading and a worse outlook than invasive ductal or lobular cancer.

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, there are new and powerful options available today to 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 cancer center, UVA features comprehensive cancer detection and treatment options, as well as personal support for you and your family.