Instead, it’s best to examine your breasts as a whole—keeping track of what they normally feel and look like—so you can report any changes to your doc, whether they’re cancer or not, she adds.
Here are some of the most surprising signs and symptoms of breast cancer in women, so you know what to look out for besides lumps:
1. You notice dimply, scaly, patchy, or inflamed skin
You know your boobs and all their little quirks (like how Leftie fills out your bra so much better than Rightie) so if you notice any changes to their normal appearance, pay attention, says Debra Patt, MD, ob-gyn and breast cancer expert with Texas Oncology, a practice in the US Oncology Network.
“Any unusual thickening, redness, rash, dimpling, or puckering of your breast skin, or around the nipple, should be checked out by your doctor,” she explains.
2. Your nipples have changed
Only mannequins have perfect, pointy, well-behaved nipples. Real, human women have to deal with different colors and sizes, positions, textures, and (gasp) hair.
Fortunately all of these things are totally normal and not a problem as long as they’re your normal, says Dr. Denduluri. For example, if your nips have always been inverted, that’s just how you’re shaped, but if they change suddenly, going from pointy to fully or partially inverted, call your doctor stat. Any change in your nipples, including their color and texture, needs to be checked to rule out cancer, she says.
Oh, and BTW, hairy nipples on women have nothing to do with cancer and are totally normal—one in three women have nipple hair, even if they won’t admit it, she adds.
3. Or, your nipples are leaking
Is there anything more alarming than having your breasts start squirting liquid when there’s no baby involved? “It’s normal to have some leakage during pregnancy, while breastfeeding, and up to a year after weaning your baby, but if you notice any discharge any other time it needs to be evaluated by a doctor,” says Dr. Patt.
Random discharge, especially if it’s red or green or has an odor, can mean you have a problem, including cancer of the breast or the pituitary gland, she explains.
4. You’ve got painful swelling
Swollen and painful breasts are, well, a pain—and while they’re mainly due to hormonal changes (like PMS or pregnancy), they can be linked to breast cancer.
It’s all about the size and placement of the tumor, says Dr. Patt, which can be responsible for a change in the size or shape of your breast, or cause of painful swelling. While the vast majority of women who report breast pain do not have cancer, if breast pain and swelling isn’t linked to your menstrual cycle, you’re not breastfeeding, and it appears suddenly or doesn’t go away, give your doctor a call because whatever is happening needs to be addressed, adds Dr. Patt.
5. You feel a strange tickling sensation
How your breasts feel internally can be just as important as how they feel on the outside, says Sherry Ross, MD, an ob-gyn and author of She-ology. Some women report feeling a sensation almost like they’re being “tickled from the inside,” their breast feels like it’s “buzzing” or “prickly” inside, or like their breast milk is “letting down” (when they’re not breastfeeding), she says.
Weird feelings can happen for no reason at all but if you’re experiencing strange sensations in your breast that are abnormal and recurring, it’s time to call your doc, she says.
6. You can’t face the stream in the shower
Does wearing a bra suddenly irritate your nipples? Are your breasts so painful that you have to face away from the stream of water in the shower? Have your breasts become so sensitive that you don’t like your partner to touch them anymore? Breasts or nipples that become more sensitive than normal can be a sign of cancer, Dr. Ross says.
Breast sensitivity is often tied to hormone changes, which is why many women experience breast tenderness as part of PMS and it’s one of the earliest signs of pregnancy. “However, some types of breast cancer can affect your hormones, giving you a similar feeling,” she explains.
So if your breasts are suddenly way more sensitive than normal and it’s not around that time of the month and you’re not pregnant, give your doctor a call, she says.