It’s scary to think about, but breast cancer doesn’t always present as a noticeable lump. There are many times that it gets diagnosed only after the lump has become large enough to be felt, some strange symptoms appear, or it’s caught in an imaging test. Many women might ask: how long can you have breast cancer without knowing? And most of all, how much can it progress? 

Self-checks might not detect early enough

A breast cancer researcher at Robert W. Franz Cancer Research Center in Portland, Oregon found that breast cancer can usually be felt by hand about two to five years after it begins developing. By this stage, it is a third of the size of a golf ball and has had enough time to possibly spread to other areas.

Though self-palpation can be a great practice and help you get acquainted with what feels normal in your own breasts, they aren’t foolproof. They might not detect cancer early enough, but regular mammograms will! The risk increases with age, so the recommendation is to get an annual mammogram if you’re between the ages of 45 and 55, and one every 1 to 2 years if you’re older than 55. The American Cancer Society states that women as young as 40 should get the choice to start early. 

Is breast cancer painless? Is there always a lump?

When a lump has become larger, it can cause some discomfort, but most breast cancers don’t cause pain. As discussed in a previous post, many of the causes of pain are benign and not related to cancer. On the other hand, an aggressive form called Inflammatory Breast Cancer (IBC) is more likely to cause pain- specifically a burning sensation. Luckily, only 1-5% of all breast cancer cases are diagnosed with IBC. Basically, don’t rule out consistent pain as a worrying sign. 

One thing to note about IBC is that a growth may not even be present. Instead, other symptoms occur and appear much quicker. Regardless of the type of cancer or if a definitive lump is found or not, any of the following symptoms should be a reason to get checked out by a doctor: 

  • Skin that is unusually red, blue, pink, or thickened 
  • Peeling, itchy skin 
  • One breast feeling full or heavy for an extended period of time (unrelated to your usual menstrual cycle symptoms) 
  • Nipple/s turning inward 
  • Nipple discharge 
  • Enlarged lymph nodes near the collarbone or underarm 
  • One breast feels warmer than the other 
  • Breast pain that is unrelated to your menstrual cycle 

So as you can tell, whether or not a palpable mass becomes noticeable or not, all of these signs should be a cause for concern. While any of the above can occur alongside a cancer diagnosis, the truth is that, sometimes, breast cancer may not have any signs or symptoms- especially in the early stages. It’s relatively rare, but it can happen. 

Even if these issues are something other than cancer, why ignore them? Part of early detection is being vigilant with our health overall. The question: How long can you have breast cancer without knowing? The simple answer: Cancer may progress to a later stage before anything abnormal is noticed. 

To find out more about what type of mammogram you should do, check out this resource which helps you determine if you are at a high or low-risk for cancer. Mammograms are one of the best technologies we have available today that can check for abnormalities and possible cancer. 

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