NOV 08, 2016 3:07 PM PST

Breast Cancer: It's Not Always About the Lump


Despite public awareness on breast cancer, researchers say women may still be misinformed about the signs and symptoms of this disease. In particular, the latest study found that one in six women diagnosed with breast cancer came in with symptoms other than the telltale breast lump. Furthermore, not knowing the other symptoms impacted the women’s decision to seek medical help, which may influence their treatment outcomes.
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This year, an estimated 246,660 women in the US will be diagnosed with breast cancer – a disease that currently ranks as one of the most common causes of cancer deaths in American women. Because of public exposure and aggressive research, screening and treatment options have improved the outcome for breast cancer patients. But, do women have all the information about the signs and symptoms of breast cancer?
To answer this question, researchers from the University College London analyzed data from a cohort of 2,300 women who were diagnosed with breast cancer between 2009 and 2010. Within this cohort, the researchers parsed out the symptoms that brought the women to see their doctors. They also analyzed the time it took for the women to seek medical help.
The team found that for the majority of the women (83 percent), a breast lump brought them to the doctor. However, a significant portion had symptoms other than lumps that eventually led to their breast cancer diagnosis. These non-lump symptoms included nipple abnormalities, breast pain, and breast skin abnormalities.

Even more surprising, some women didn’t have symptoms on their breast at all. Some had back and muscle pain, some had breathlessness, and some had a lump in the armpit.

The researchers say the lump – the most well-known sign of breast cancer – may have overshadowed other signs. And this has real life-changing consequences, as the team found that those with non-lump symptoms waited more than 90 days to seek treatment. Of note, waiting past the three-month window is linked to a lower five-year survival rate. 
“This research shows that, all too often, women are delaying going to their doctor with symptoms of breast cancer,” said Karen Kennedy, director of the National Cancer Research Institute in the U.K. "This could be because people are simply unaware that breast cancer can present in many different ways, not just through the presence of a lump. With a disease like breast cancer, it's essential to be diagnosed as early as possible so that a treatment plan can be developed and started."
"It's crucial that women are aware that a lump is not the only symptom of breast cancer," advised Monica Koo, the study’s lead author. "If they are worried about any breast symptoms, the best thing to do is to get it checked by a doctor as soon as possible."     

Additional sources: BBC, Live Science

About the Author
  • I am a human geneticist, passionate about telling stories to make science more engaging and approachable. Find more of my writing at the Hopkins BioMedical Odyssey blog and at
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