Both a visual inspection and palpation (examination by touch) are necessary to perceive changes in the breasts which may indicate breast cancer. A physician’s examination, every three years beginning at age 20, and annually, starting at age 40 along with an annual mammogram, beginning at age 40, are also very important in diagnosing the presence of breast cancer.

Warning signs of breast cancer include:

  • A lump or thickening in the breast.
  • Skin dimpling or puckering on either breast.
  • Any changes in the shape, texture, or color of the skin.
  • A nipple that has become inverted, or looks pushed in.
  • Discharge from the nipples which expresses involuntarily.
  • Localized breast pain, not related to the hormonal cycle.

Risk Factors

As a woman ages, her risk increases. Among all women with breast cancer, 75 percent show no risk factors other than gender and age. According to the American Cancer Society, estrogen appears to be a key factor in breast cancer risk. First menstruation at an early age (before 12), pregnancy after age 30 or not at all, and late onset of menopause (after 55) have been shown to be related to increased risk of breast cancer.

Other risk factors include:

  • Personal history of breast cancer.
  • Family history of breast cancer, especially in a first-degree relative such as mother, sister, or daughter.
  • Personal history of breast biopsy showing atypical cells.
  • Obesity.
  • Excessive use of alcohol.
  • Personal history of benign breast biopsy.
  • Excessive amount of fat in diet.

A woman is considered to be at particularly high risk for breast cancer if:

  • Mother or sister was diagnosed with breast cancer BEFORE menopause.
  • Known breast cancer gene carrier (genetic testing shows BRCA1/BRCA2).
  • History of high-dose radiation to breasts in past (such as for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma).

For these women, screening mammograms are recommended at an earlier age, usually 10 years before the primary relative was diagnosed with breast cancer.