Physician With Clipboard
08 November 2016

Breast Cancer Diagnosis Delayed In Women With “Non-Lump” Symptoms

Nearly 1 in 6 women with breast cancer don’t present with a lump, according to new research from England. That may not sound like a high percentage, but women with non-lump cancer symptoms are also less likely to visit a doctor at the earliest possible date. Women who do notice an unusual lump, on the other hand, tend to see a physician quickly, which can lead to far better outcomes.

Women Without Breast Lumps More Likely To Delay Cancer Diagnosis

The study, reported by ScienceDaily and other sources, was led by Monica Koo, a doctoral student at University College London. Along with her colleagues, Koo reviewed the medical records of 2,300 women who were ultimately diagnosed with breast cancer. While 83% of the women had breast lumps at their initial appointment, that still leaves 17% without the most obvious, and well-known, symptom of the disease. Far less common were obscure cancer symptoms:

  • nipple abnormalities (7% of women)
  • breast pain (6% of women)
  • breast skin anomalies (2% of women)
  • breast ulceration (1% of women)
  • breast contour changes (less than 1% of women)
  • breast infections (less than 1% of women)

“Breast cancer can present in many different ways, not just through the presence of a lump,” says Karen Kennedy, director for the UK’s National Cancer Research Institute. But there’s strong evidence to suggest that many women aren’t aware of the disease’s other symptoms, like abnormal nipple discharge, breast swelling and changes in the shape of a nipple. Women covered by the British study, for example, were more than twice as likely to delay going to a doctor if they didn’t have breast lumps. Only 7% of women with lumps waited longer than 90 days, while 15% of women with other symptoms, but no lump, delayed treatment for that long.

Doctor Diagnosing Breast Cancer Patient

“It’s crucial that women are aware that a lump is not the only symptom of breast cancer,” lead researcher Koo told Cancer Research UK. Crucial is an understatement. Early diagnosis is the best way to improve patient outcomes, especially where a progressive, and difficult to treat, disease like cancer is concerned. Breast cancer is no different. Waiting three months before visiting the doctor has been linked to a decrease in five-year survival rates among breast cancer patients.

Non-Lump Breast Cancer Symptoms

So what should you watch out for? Dr. Jem Rashbass at Public Health England says “any changes” to the breast are cause for cautious concern – and a discussion with your physician. In fact, some breast cancer symptoms, like a lump in the armpit, don’t affect the breasts at all. Here are 7 other common “non-lump” symptoms of breast cancer:

  1. swollen breast, either partially or completely
  2. nipple or breast pain
  3. nipple turned inwards
  4. dimpling of breast skin
  5. other breast skin irritations
  6. thickening, scaliness or redness of nipple or breast
  7. nipple discharge

It’s important to note that these symptoms aren’t necessarily a sign that you have cancer. Infections and benign cysts can cause similar problems, but that’s no reason to assume anything without first consulting your doctor. Like most other cancers, many cases of breast cancer don’t present any symptoms at first. A lack of symptoms does not necessarily mean an absence of disease. That makes noticing symptoms immediately, and contacting your doctor, even more important.

Despite the new study results, and the publicity they have received, breast lumps remain the most common early symptom of cancer. Lumps can be hard or soft, but hard, painless and uneven ones are more likely to be cancerous, according to BreastCancer.org. That being said, the women involved in the study actually reported a total of 56 different symptoms, from well-known signs like lumps to “non-specific symptoms,” including weight loss and back pain.

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