**This post is for informational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice. Please see a qualified health professional if you have any concerns.
There’s lots of awareness about the importance of self breast exams and getting the doctor to examine your breasts. But did you know some women with breast cancer can't feel a lump and there are other symptoms of breast cancer that could show up even earlier?
In my case, one of the symptoms I had popped up YEARS before I noticed the lump.
I’m kicking myself, because I should have taken notice of those early warning signs, but instead I ignored them, and hoped they would go away.
Imagine if I did investigated further, could I have avoided chemo, a mastectomy and radiation?
It’s important to remember that detecting breast cancer in its early stages is favourable because the prognosis is so much better for these women. I'm hoping by writing this post, I can give hindsight to another person. Remember, men can get breast cancer too! (although it's rare).
So let’s get right into it and let me describe the symptoms I had prior to my breast cancer diagnosis.
1| Swelling under the armpit
This was probably the earliest symptom of breast cancer that I had going back a couple of years from diagnosis. The closest lymph nodes to the breasts are the ones on your underarm and collarbone. So any stray cancer cells would drain to these lymph nodes first.
I was having a massage when the therapist commented that she could feel something under my armpit. I honestly couldn't feel much discomfort until she pressed quite hard it did become tender. She told me to go check it out but unfortunately I didn’t really pay much attention at the time and shrugged it off as nothing.
Because a massage therapist uses alot of pressure when they’re massaging, they can get real deep into the tissues and feel for any lumps or swelling that you yourself don't normal feel. I've personally heard stories of women finding out lumps on their breasts when they’re having a massage, so next time the massage therapist kindly tells you there’s a lump, do yourself a favour and see a doctor.
You could be fighting an infection of some kind which may explain the swelling of the lymph nodes, but at least by seeing a doctor, they can monitor the swelling.
I had been pretty tired for a couple of years before I was diagnosed. I suspected I was low in iron but the iron supplements weren’t helping. I also tried exercising to boost my energy levels, so I joined the gym and got myself a personal trainer. Usually most people will get a endorphin high after a workout but the opposite happened. I felt like my head was pounding and I wanted to slip into a coma.
Tiredness is a pretty general symptom to have so it’s somewhat difficult to know if something sinister is going on.
The tiredness I felt was even more pronounced in the couple of months leading to the diagnosis.
To clarify, it was more than just feeling tired, I was fatigued. I felt like I needed a nap after I just had one.
3| Changes to the Nipple
Nipple-related changes usually occur on the side where the breast cancer is growing. This was probably one of the biggest clues that I totally ignored (stupid me!) and there were several nipple-related changes that I want to mention.
Firstly, I had itchy and cracked nipples. This went on and off for a couple of months. It wasn’t constant and I suspected I might have been allergic to a new soap or a new bra that I got. Because I also started exercising, I put it down to lots of sweating and rubbing being the cause. My nipple also soon became inflamed, scaly and peeling.
I also experienced a clear and sometimes milky discharge when the nipple was squeezed (I wasn’t pregnant or breast-feeding at the time). Some women notice a bloody discharge.
Other nipple related changes that some women have reported include nipple retraction (turning inwards), flattened nipple, a rash or decrease in sensitivity.
4) Night sweats
I experienced night sweats 2-3 times prior to diagnosis which I had mistakenly thought was overheating because I had too much doona while sleeping. I would wake up in the middle of the night with a drenched pyjama top. Scientists don’t really know what causes night sweats in cancer but my guess would be the body’s immune system trying to mount an attack or some type of hormone changes caused by the breast tumor itself.
5| Breast Lump
When I was diagnosed, I couldn’t believe how big the tumor was already.
How could I not have noticed it earlier? It felt like a huge lump appeared out of nowhere.
The breast surgeon explained to me that in order to feel the lump, it had to have a different density to the surrounding breast tissue. So in my case when the tumour was smaller it wasn’t dense enough to be felt. Because I was in my 20s, I wasn’t even doing breast exams, so it was very possible that it was there and I just never felt it until it got very big.
So those were my symptoms. Other possible symptoms of breast cancer can also include:
Skin irritation or dimpling
Swelling of all or part of the breast (even if no distinct lump is present)
Upper back, shoulder and neck pain
Pain in the breast or chest
This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list of symptoms and each women will present differently or not at all until they are in a screening program, so it’s important to know what’s normal for your breasts.
If you notice anything out of the ordinary or abnormal about your breasts, then it’s a good idea to get it checked out by a doctor. It might be nothing serious, and worst case scenario it was a false alarm.
A Near Misdiagnosis
When I did eventually find the lump in my breast, I went to see the doctor straight away. But would you believe it, she didn’t even think it was breast cancer and was about to send me on my way!
When my doctor, an elderly woman, examined my breasts, she assured me there was nothing to worry about and it’s probably a fibroadenoma - a benign cyst. She saw it all the time in young women (basically she was saying she had X number of years experience and that I should trust her on this one).
Her advice was a wait and see approach and told me to come back in a couple of months.
At this point I was in a panic that she didn’t believe anything was wrong. Sure she examined my breasts, but she didn’t have x-ray vision, how did she know it wasn’t breast cancer?
So of course I put on the waterworks and basically told her I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night until I get a proper scan (I had an ultrasound and mammogram that same afternoon).
Now don’t let any doctor, intimidate you or feel like you’re a hypochondriac. If they do then perhaps it’s time to change doctors.
But imagine if I did took her advice and waited two or three whole months?
Could my diagnosis be different? Would I have been a Stage IV cancer patient with metastatic breast cancer?
Would I even still be alive today?
I honestly don’t blame the doctor. Doctors are humans after all and they make assumptions about us. She took one look at me - a young woman presenting with a breast lump, and assumed the chances of breast cancer was pretty low so in her mind, there was no reason to investigate further.
The important thing to learn here was that I got to the bottom of it and not shrugged it off - like I did with all the other signs and symptoms of breast cancer.
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