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Can Intuition Lead to a Breast Cancer Diagnosis? What the Science Says

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January 23, 2024

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Liliya Rodnikova/Stocksy United

Liliya Rodnikova/Stocksy United

by Sarah Garone

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Medically Reviewed by:

Faith Selchick, DNP, AOCNP

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•••••

by Sarah Garone

•••••

Medically Reviewed by:

Faith Selchick, DNP, AOCNP

•••••

•••••

Intuition may play a role in sensing cancer, but there’s no evidence to support it. Other reasons for suspecting cancer may include family history, risk, and the experiences of loved ones.

If you’ve found a lump in your breast, mammograms, ultrasounds, blood tests, and MRIs are all helpful tools for diagnosing or ruling out cancer.

But what if intuition could tell you that you have breast cancer before you even see a doctor?

Some people who have experienced this disease say they simply had a sense that something was wrong or “off” in their breasts prior to diagnosis, or even knew unequivocally that a lump was cancerous.

Here’s how some patients say they felt their breast cancer — physically and intuitively — prior to diagnosis, plus an expert’s take on this phenomenon.

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Can you sense breast cancer before diagnosis?

Breast lumps are common and can be due to a variety of causes, like fibrocystic breasts, overgrowth of ducts, or changes to the menstrual cycle.

Most lumps don’t turn out to be cancer — not by a long shot! According to data from 2022, only 10% of new breast lumps result in a cancer diagnosis.

Of these 10%, a small handful of folks report simply knowing that even a small lump was cancer.

“Once I felt the lump, I just knew it was cancer, and I cried,” says Marissa Garcia of Mesa, AZ. “I turned out to be correct, unfortunately.”

Despite never having had a previous breast lump or other significant health issues, she says intuition told her this instance was something to be concerned about. Garcia is now being treated for stage IV metastatic breast cancer.

Others on online platforms report similar experiences.

“I had a lump about the size of a dime when I was 23, accompanied by night sweats and a general feeling that something wasn’t right. Like, I knew it,” writes user Pizzatoucher on a 2022 Reddit thread. Her tests came back positive for a rare form of breast cancer.

“Mindfulness and mental health support is an essential component of cancer risk reduction.”

— Monique Gary, DO, MSc, FACS

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Other reasons you might suspect cancer

So, how do experts account for people who say they felt their cancer before receiving a diagnosis?

There may be an element of intuition in detecting breast cancer that modern medicine can’t account for. However, there’s no way to measure or prove it.

There are also other reasons someone might be inclined to suspect they have breast cancer, including risk, family history, and the experiences of their friends and family.

According to Monique Gary, DO, MSc, FACS, breast surgical oncologist and Medical Director of the Grand View Health cancer program, some people may be predisposed toward a knowledge or even a fear of breast cancer.

“I have seen patients who said that they knew they had breast cancer or were convinced or had a sense of impending doom — it’s called anticipatory anxiety — that cancer would develop,” she says. “From my experience, it is largely based on family history or lived experience of those close to the patient, and it occurs most frequently in patients enrolled in our high risk program.”

Gary says these patients may feel as if they have been “waiting for the other shoe to drop” due to family history. Both their history and their stress over potentially developing breast cancer can actually increase health risks, she says.

Her advice: If you feel worried that you may have breast cancer, get checked out. But just as importantly, don’t let worry about breast cancer rule your life.

“Many patients note the onset of breast cancer diagnosis after significant life stressors, and the effect of stress hormones in the body is the subject of much research today,” she says. “This is why mindfulness and mental health support, in my opinion, is an essential component of cancer risk reduction.”

What does a breast cancer lump feel like?

Spidey sense aside, breast cancer is a physical disease. Malignancies occur when tissues multiply abnormally, often creating a palpable lump. Different people’s lumps may feel different, so there’s no single texture or shape to look for.

Still, according to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, a lump that may be breast cancer typically feels like a solid or thick spot around the breast tissue or in the underarm area. Lumps can vary in size from about the diameter of a pea to the size of a golf ball and might be squishy or hard, moveable or immoveable, smooth or jagged.

Gary says that, though it’s always important to get a breast lump checked out by your doctor, many women have no noticeable lumps when they receive a breast cancer diagnosis.

“The majority of malignancies are found through routine screening, except for individuals who are too young for screening,” she says.

There are also other signs to look for. These include:

  • skin reddening or thickening
  • orange peel skin or peau d’orange (may include edema and pitting)
  • retracted or inverted nipples
  • dry, flaky nipples
  • nipple discharge
  • itchy or red nipples

Anything that’s a change should be considered — not just a lump.

Many women have no noticeable lumps when they receive a breast cancer diagnosis.

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Are there other early warning signs of breast cancer?

As for other signs of breast cancer that may cause people to “feel” their condition before diagnosis, Gary says they’re tricky to pin down.

“There are no consistent symptoms of early-stage breast cancer,” she says. “When asked, patients often report fatigue or, sometimes life stressors, although these have no clear association with the development or onset of breast cancer.”

In general, if you feel overly fatigued or have symptoms like unintended weight loss, unusual pains, abnormal bruising, or skin changes, it’s best to seek medical attention.

“Chronic fatigue and unexplained weight loss are not normal, despite how we sometimes see these portrayed on social media or in today’s busy society,” Gary says.

While these could be signs of cancer, they could also be explained by other health issues.

They “may be signs of conditions that can affect the whole body like diabetes, thyroid malfunction, heart disease, kidney disease, and more,” Gary says.

Bottom line

Some people say they had a sense of certainty about breast cancer before diagnosis — and turned out to be right. These could be cases of intuition, but there’s no way to know for sure.

Still, it’s always best to be on the safe side and follow up on any gut feelings with medical testing to determine the best course of action.

Medically reviewed on January 23, 2024

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About the author

Sarah Garone

Sarah Garone is a nutritionist, freelance writer, and food blogger. Find her sharing down-to-earth nutrition info at A Love Letter to Food or follow her on Twitter.

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