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Not just lumps – get to know other symptoms of breast cancer, says study

Research 15 Sep 2017
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The most common symptom of breast cancer is a newly discovered lump, but this is not the only symptom women should be aware of, according to a recently published research article from the UK.

Nipple abnormalities and breast pain were just some of the other symptoms reported by one in six women involved in research conducted by University College, London.

The study, published in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, presented data obtained from an audit of more than 2300 women diagnosed with breast cancer in England in 2009-2010. Researchers investigated the presenting symptoms of the women and the time taken for each of their diagnoses.

The aim of the study was to establish if there was any correlation between the type of symptom the woman reported to her doctor and the length of time it took for her to be diagnosed with breast cancer. The researchers looked at the time the woman waited before seeking help (the patient interval) and also the time to reach a diagnosis after seeing her doctor (the primary care interval).

The majority of women diagnosed with breast cancer initially presented with a breast lump (83%), but one in six (17%) presented with a non-lump symptom. These included nipple abnormalities, breast pain, skin abnormalities, ulceration, shape abnormalities, an inflamed or infected breast and a lump or pain in the armpit.

Importantly, the study reported that while the majority of women sought help quickly, those who had 'non-lump' symptoms waited up to three months to seek help. Women who had both a lump and 'non- lump' symptoms also delayed seeking help.

The delay in seeking a diagnosis is significant. The earlier a cancer is diagnosed, the better the treatment and survival outcomes.

What you need to know:

Cancer Australia recommends women be 'breast aware'. Knowing what is normal for you will help you detect any changes, including:

  • a new lump or lumpiness, especially if it's only in one breast
  • a change in the size or shape of the breast
  • a change to the nipple, such as crusting, ulcer, redness or inversion
  • a nipple discharge that occurs without squeezing
  • a change in the skin of the breast, such as redness or dimpling
  • an unusual pain that doesn't go away.

This study reinforces the importance of seeing your doctor as soon as you notice a change in your breasts. Jean Hailes' specialist women's health GP, Dr Amanda Newman, says it's also important for women to know that nine out of 10 breast changes are not cancer, but that these changes need to be monitored by their GP.

For more information, visit our Breast Health pages.