Early breast cancer usually does not cause pain. In fact, when breast cancer first develops, there may be no symptoms at all. But as the cancer grows, it can cause changes that women should watch for:
• A lump or thickening in or near the breast or in the underarm area.
• A change in the size or shape of the breast.
• A discharge from the nipple.
• A change in the color or feel of the skin of the breast, areola, or nipple (dimpled, puckered, or scaly).
A woman should see her doctor if she notices any of these changes. Most often, they are not cancer, but only a doctor can tell for sure.
An abnormal area on a mammogram, a lump, or other changes in the breast can be caused by cancer or by other, less serious problems. To find out the cause of any of these signs or symptoms, a woman's doctor does a careful physical exam and asks about her personal and family medical history. In addition to checking general signs of health, the doctor may do one or more of the breast exams described below.
• Palpation. The doctor can tell a lot about a lump—its size, its texture, and whether it moves easily—by palpation, carefully feeling the lump and the tissue around it. Benign lumps often feel different from cancerous ones.
• Mammography. X-rays of the breast can give the doctor important information about a breast lump. If an area on the mammogram looks suspicious or is not clear, additional x-rays may be needed.
• Ultrasonography. Using high-frequency sound waves, ultrasonography can often show whether a lump is solid or filled with fluid. This exam may be used along with mammography.
Based on these exams, the doctor may decide that no further tests are needed and no treatment is necessary. In such cases, the doctor may need to check the woman regularly to watch for any changes. Often, however, the doctor must remove fluid or tissue from the breast to make a diagnosis.
Aspiration or needle biopsy. The doctor uses a needle to remove fluid or a small amount of tissue from a breast lump. This procedure may show whether a lump is a fluid-filled cyst (not cancer) or a solid mass (which may or may not be cancer). Using special techniques, tissue can be removed with a needle from an area that is suspicious on a mammogram but cannot be felt.
If tissue is removed in a needle biopsy, it goes to a lab to be checked for cancer cells. Clear fluid removed from a cyst may not need to be checked by a lab.
Surgical biopsy. The surgeon cuts out part or all of a lump or suspicious area. A pathologist examines the tissue under a microscope to check for cancer cells.
When a woman needs a biopsy, these are some questions she may want to ask her doctor:
• What type of biopsy will I have? Why?
• How long will the biopsy or aspiration take? Will I be awake? Will it hurt?
• How soon will I know the results?
• If I do have cancer, who will talk with me about treatment? When?
When Cancer Is Found
When cancer is present, the pathologist can tell what kind of cancer it is (whether it began in a duct or a lobule) and whether it is invasive (has invaded nearby tissues in the breast).
Special laboratory tests of the tissue help the doctor learn more about the cancer. For example, hormone receptor tests (estrogen and progesterone receptor tests) can help predict whether the cancer is sensitive to hormones. Positive test results mean hormones help the cancer grow and the cancer is likely to respond to hormonal therapy. Other lab tests are sometimes done to help the doctor predict whether the cancer is likely to grow slowly or quickly.
If the diagnosis is cancer, the patient may want to ask these questions:
• What kind of breast cancer do I have? It is invasive?
• What did the hormone receptor test show? What other lab tests were done on the tumor tissue, and what did they show?
• How will this information help the doctor decide what type of treatment or further tests to recommend?
The patient's doctor may refer her to doctors who specialize in treating cancer, or she may ask for a referral. Treatment generally begins within a few weeks after the diagnosis. There will be time for the woman to talk with the doctor about her treatment choices, to get a second opinion, and to prepare herself and her loved ones.