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Breast cancer refers to cancer that originates in the ducts or glands of the breast. Breast cancer in its earliest stages is largely asymptomatic. As breast cancer progresses to stage I, stage II or later, it may be characterized by a lump on the breast or other changes in the breast or nipple. In addition, a certain rare form of aggressive breast cancer called inflammatory breast cancer may have the appearance of a breast infection and is often misdiagnosed.

Breast Cancer Facts

Breast cancer refers to cancer cells and tumors that originate in the glands or ducts of the breast. Occasionally, breast cancer begins in the stromal tissues (the fatty connective tissues located within the breast). The cancer cells begin to penetrate healthy breast tissue, and, if left untreated, ultimately progress to the lymph nodes and other areas in the body. The stage of the cancer is determined by the extent of the cancer cells in the breast and by the possible spread of cancer cells. Stage I breast cancer tends to look different than stage IV breast cancer, and stage I cancer is far more easily treatable than stage IV breast cancer, which cannot be cured.

What Does Breast Cancer Look Like

The symptoms of breast cancer differ for different patients, so there is no one "look" to breast cancer. Certain changes or activity within the breast may be indicative of breast cancer. Bloody discharge from the nipples, inverted nipples and peeling skin on the nipple may be indicative of breast cancer. A change in the shape of the breast, the size of the breast or the skin of the breast (especially dimpling of the skin) may also be indicative of breast cancer. If the skin on the breast thickens or becomes puckered to resemble the skin of an orange, this may also be a sign of breast cancer.

Breast Lumps

Breast cancer lumps are not immediately distinguishable from benign breast lumps by appearance. They do not have a signature look that distinguishes them from cysts (small, fluid filled lumps) or fibroadenomas (small tumors that are nonmalignant and commonly present in young patients). Therefore, any new lump should be checked by a physician. A breast cancer lump may feel painful or may be tender to the touch, but it also may not. Generally, lumps found on the outer breast close to the armpit are more prominent than others. Lumps found on the lower half of the breast may feel like pebbles on a beach.

Inflammatory Breast Cancer

Unlike other forms of breast cancer, inflammatory breast cancer does not present with a lump. Inflammatory breast cancer looks very different and is more symptomatic than other types of breast cancer. It is characterized by very specific symptoms, which are often confused with the symptoms of an easily treatable breast infection. These symptoms include a thickening of the breast. The skin may also appear to be inflamed or bright red or appear bruised or puckered like the skin of an orange. The breast may become swollen or feel warm to the touch. Sores that appear to be ridges, hives or welts may appear. Finally, the nipple might become flat or inverted.

Breast Self Exams

Because lumps may be too small to see initially, the best way to identify breast cancer is by touch. This involves doing regular breast self exams. You can do these exams lying down by using the middle three fingers of the right hand to rub small circles on the breast and feel for any abnormalities. You can also gently squeeze the nipple to check for discharge.