No need to Google “early signs of breast cancer” to know one of the telltale symptoms include a lump in the breast. Irregularities, like lumps and bumps, are, after all, the most common thing women are told to keep an eye and feel out for during a breast self-exam. But what about breast cancer symptoms that *aren’t* lumps? They’re more common than you might realize.
A non-lump symptom was exactly what Meghan Hall, 34, discovered before she was diagnosed with breast cancer. “I noticed something green spilled on the front of my shirt, I didn’t think anything of it—until I tried to take it off and realized it was stuck to my nipple,” Meghan told WH. “My breast was leaking green fluid.”
That’s right: Meghan’s breast cancer symptom was green fluid leaking from her nipples—and her experience isn’t unique. One in six women who discovered their cancer themselves caught it based on a less-obvious breast cancer symptom, like nipple abnormalities and weight loss (a.k.a. not a lump), according to a 2017 study published in the journal Cancer Epidemiology.
These self-reported breast cancers—especially ones that don’t involve the typical lump—highlight why it’s so important to pay attention to any strange signs or symptoms or changes you may be experiencing, in addition to staying on top of your mammograms and annual checkups, says Neelima Denduluri, MD, the associate chair of the U.S. Oncology Network Breast Committee.
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 breast cancer signs and symptoms 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. Bottom line: Any changes in your nipples—including their color and texture—need to be checked to rule out cancer, Dr. Denduluri 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, 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—might mean you have a problem, including cancer of the breast or the pituitary gland, Dr. Patt 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 aren’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.