The common signs of breast cancer can be divided into several categories according to stage of breast cancer, and according to how the signs are manifested, either radiographically or clinically. Early breast cancer, such as stage 0,1, and 2A are usually picked up radiographically. The signs would be seen on a mammogram, ultra sound, or possibly an MRI. Mammograms are specifically done looking for microcalcifications, which are microscopic deposits of calcium in the breast. Many of these microcalcifications are benign (non-cancerous), however, some microcalcifications have certain characteristics that are considered indeterminate or suspicious and should be biopsied to assess them for cancer cells. A mammogram may also show an area of concern that has characteristics of a mass that will be further assessed with specific and magnified mammographic views, and/or an ultrasound. Again, very specific characteristics are looked for that would initiate a biopsy. Radiologist and breast specialists are trained to look for these specific characteristics or signs on the mammograms and ultrasound.
Other important signs of breast cancer can be seen or felt clinically. Clinically means with a physical exam. A mass in the breast may be a sign of cancer, but most masses felt in the breast are benign (non-cancerous). Bloody nipple discharge may be a sign of breast cancer, but is usually a sign of a papilloma that is non-cancerous. Skin changes of the breast, especially the nipple areolar region may be signs of breast cancer; however, most skin changes of the breast are non-cancerous. Such skin changes can be redness, a rash, or swelling. A more concerning skin change would be ulceration or open wound that will not heal. Breast skin thickening or edema, which is fluid in the skin and breast tissue, can also be a sign of breast cancer. Such skin thickening or edema of the breast will appear similar to the look of an orange peel. A newly seen retraction of the nipple may be a sign of breast cancer, but can also be a sign of duct ectasia (enlarged ducts) or infection.
The lesion here is that any changes in the breast such as a mass, nipple discharge (especially bloody), and skin changes as above should all be brought to the attention of your doctor. Once evaluated by your doctor, a decision can be made to pursue radiographic studies. An equally important lesion is to have routine mammograms starting with a base line at age 35 and than yearly at age 40.
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