"Breast awareness' means becoming familiar with the normal look and feel of your breasts. This makes it easier for you to spot any changes quickly. This information about breast awareness and breast cancer symptoms is taken from CancerHelp UK and the patient information website of Cancer Research UK. CancerHelp UK is updated every day, and all the content is written in plain English by experienced cancer nurses who also specialise in writing information for patients.
There is information below on:
- Breast awareness
- What to look for
- If you feel anxious
- Breast cancer symptoms
- What to look out for
- If you find a lump
- Breast pain
- More information
‘Breast awareness’ means becoming familiar with the normal look and feel of your breasts. This makes it easier for you to spot any changes quickly.
In the UK every woman between the ages of 50 and 70 is invited for a mammogram every 3 years as part of the national breast cancer screening programme. Even so, many breast tumours are first spotted by women themselves. This may be because the woman is too young or too old to come under the routine screening programme. Or it could be that a breast cancer starts to cause symptoms between mammograms (known as an interval cancer).
The most important thing is that the earlier a breast cancer is diagnosed, the easier it is likely to be to treat it and the better the chance of cure.
Do remember that even if you are no longer receiving routine 3 yearly invitations to have screening because you are over 70, you can still ask to be screened.
What to look for
Being breast aware simply means getting to know how your breasts normally look and feel at different times of the month. If you notice a change that isn't normal for you, talk it over with your doctor.
You don't need to examine your breasts everyday or even every week. You just need to get to know how your breasts normally feel, and how that changes with your periods. Some women have lumpier breasts around the time of a period. If this is the same on both sides, don't worry. Just check your breasts again the following month, a few days after your period is over. If the lumpiness comes and goes with your menstrual cycle, it is nothing to worry about.
It is easiest to check your breasts in the shower or bath. Run a soapy hand over each breast and up under your arm. The NHS breast awareness five-point code says
- Know what is normal for you
- Look and feel
- Know what changes to look for
- Report any changes without delay
- Attend for breast screening if you are aged 50 or over
You are checking for changes to the size, shape or feel of your breast. This could mean a lump or thickening anywhere in the breast. Most people naturally have one breast bigger than the other. But it is a change in size or shape that you should watch out for. The information here on symptoms of breast cancer gives more details of other changes to look out for, such as puckering of the skin or dimpling.
If you feel anxious
If you are worried about feeling your breasts, there are people who can help. Talk it over with:
- Your doctor or nurse
- Staff at your local 'well woman' clinic (your GP will be able to give you the telephone number)
- A nurse on a cancer helpline, such as Cancer Research UK’s information nurses
They can tell you:
- What changes you can normally expect in your breasts
- About ways of learning how your breasts should look and feel
You can reach Cancer Research UK's information nurses on 0808 800 4040, Monday to Friday from 9am to 5pm.
Breast cancer symptoms
The first symptom of breast cancer for many women is a lump in their breast. But many women have breast lumps and 9 out of 10 are benign. That means they are not cancers. Most benign breast lumps are:
- Areas of breast cell changes, causing lumpiness that is more obvious just before a period, particularly in women over 35
- Cysts – sacs of fluid in the breast tissue, which are quite common
- Fibroadenoma – a collection of fibrous glandular tissue (these are more common in younger women)
What to look out for
Changes that could be due to a breast cancer are:
- A lump or thickening in an area of the breast
- A change in the size or shape of a breast
- Dimpling of the skin
- A change in the shape of your nipple, particularly if it turns in, sinks into the breast, or has an irregular shape
- A blood stained discharge from the nipple
- A rash on a nipple or surrounding area
- A swelling or lump in your armpit
Like breast lumps, these signs don't necessarily mean cancer. Inverted nipples, blood stained nipple discharge or a rash can all be due to other medical conditions. But if any of these things happen to you, you should get it checked out. It may be a benign condition that can easily be treated and seeing the GP will put your mind at rest. Or at the very worst, if you have a cancer you give yourself the best chance of successful treatment by going to the doctor early on.
A rare type of breast cancer called inflammatory breast cancer can have different symptoms. The whole breast can look red and inflamed and can be very sore. The breast may feel hard. The skin sometimes looks like orange peel because the pores stand out in the inflamed area.
Another rare type of breast cancer shows up as a rash on and around the nipple. It is called Paget's disease. The red, scaly rash can be itchy. It looks a bit like eczema and is sometimes mistaken for that at first.
If you find a lump
See your doctor straight away. If you notice anything unusual about your breast, have it examined. Even though most breast lumps are benign, they need to be checked to rule out cancer.
Your doctor will examine you and if necessary will send you to a specialist breast clinic for further checks. At the clinic, they will be able to see on your mammogram or ultrasound if the lump is a fluid filled cyst or a solid lump.
If it is a cyst, they may get rid of it by draining the fluid out through a fine needle. If it is a solid lump, they will stick a very fine needle into it and take a tissue sample to test for cancer cells.
Some women prefer to have benign lumps removed to relieve their worry. They may be concerned that they will confuse them with any other lumps they may get in the future. But if you and your doctor are confident that the lump is benign, you do not have to have it removed if you do not want to. Benign lumps don't turn into cancer.
If your lump is a cancer, the earlier you have breast cancer treatment, the better your chance of cure.
Pain doesn't usually mean cancer. Many healthy women find that their breasts feel lumpy and tender before a period. And some benign breast lumps are painful. Many women get pain in their breasts for a while, which goes after a time. There may be no obvious reason for the pain, even with lots of tests. Most breast pain is not caused by cancer, but some breast cancers do cause pain, so if you are worried, see your GP.