Finding breast cancer early

Finding breast cancer early means that you have the best chance of being successfully treated. Some people are diagnosed with breast cancer after seeing their GP with symptoms of breast cancers. Others do not have any symptoms and some are diagnosed after having breast screening.

This page explains about knowing how your breasts and chest normally look and feel. And if something isn’t normal for you what you should do. 

What is breast awareness?

Being breast aware means getting to know your breasts and chest. This includes what they are like at different times of the month. And if you notice a change that isn't normal for you, make an appointment at your GP surgery. You can then get these changes checked out.

Seeing your GP

Your GP will examine your breasts or chest and might also feel the lymph nodes Open a glossary item under your arms and in your neck. Depending on your symptoms, your GP might refer you to a breast clinic. This is usually a one stop clinic where you have several tests during one visit. It is also called a triple assessment.

In the UK there are national guidelines that help your GP decide who they should refer to a breast clinic. There are some differences in the guidelines between the different nations. Your GP will use these guidelines as well as their experience and judgement.

When and how to examine your breasts or chest

There is no set time or set way about when and how you should check your breasts or chest. This means you don't need to examine your breasts or chest every day or even every week. But it is important to know how your breasts and chest normally feel, and how this changes with your periods.

Some people have lumpier breasts around the time of a period. If this is the same in both breasts, don't worry. But 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.

Your breasts usually feel softer and not as lumpy if you no longer have periods.

What to look for

You are looking for changes in the size, shape or feel of your breasts and armpits.

Most people naturally have one breast bigger than the other and this is normal.

Some of the changes to look for and be aware of are:

  • a new lump or thickening in your breast, chest or armpit
  • a change in size, shape or feel of your breast or chest
  • skin changes in your breast such as puckering, dimpling, a rash or redness of the skin
  • fluid leaking from the nipple and you aren’t pregnant or breastfeeding
  • changes in the position of the nipple

Book an appointment to see your doctor without delay if you notice any changes that aren’t normal for you.

Breast pain 

It's important to remember that breast pain is very common and it’s not normally due to cancer. But do see your doctor if you have breast pain. They can give you advice on how to treat the pain and whether you need any tests.

Finding breast cancer with screening

The UK national breast screening programme uses breast x-rays (mammograms) to find breast cancer early before it causes symptoms.

The programme invites women between the ages of 50 and 70 to have a mammogram every 3 years. Cancer screening is offered at ages when the benefits are biggest and the harms are smallest.

In England, Wales and Northern Ireland

Women older than 70 can ask to carry on having screening every 3 years. But you won’t automatically be invited. To continue to have screening contact your local breast screening unit.

In Scotland you can continue to have breast screening after you are 71 years up until your 75th birthday. But you won’t automatically be invited. You have to contact your local breast screening service.

Benefits of finding cancer early

Breast cancers found early are more likely to be successfully treated. 

Help with breast awareness

If you are worried that you don't know how to check your breasts, talk it over with your GP or practice nurse.

You can also see staff at your local well woman clinic. Your GP or practice nurse can give you the telephone number.

The staff can tell you about changes you can normally expect in your breasts. They can also tell you about ways of learning how your breasts normally look and feel.

If you have breast or chest changes

If you have any breast or chest changes or are worried that you might have cancer you should go to your GP. Your worry is unlikely to go away if you don’t make an appointment.

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