Finding breast cancer early

Find out about checking your breasts and how to be breast aware.

Know which changes to look for, how to look at and feel your breasts, and when to see your doctor.

What is breast awareness

Being breast aware means getting to know how your breasts normally look and feel. This may change at different times of the month.

If you notice a change that isn't normal for you, make an appointment to see your practice nurse or doctor. You can ask them if you need a referral to the breast clinic.

The NHS has produced a 5 point plan for being breast aware:

  • know what is normal for you
  • look at and feel your breasts
  • know which changes to look for
  • see your doctor about any unusual changes
  • attend screening if you are 50 years or older

When to examine your breasts

You don't need to examine your breasts every day or even every week. But it is important 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 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 and feeling 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.

Changes to look for:

  • a new lump or thickening in your breast or armpit
  • a change in size, shape or feel of your breast
  • skin changes in the breast such as puckering, dimpling, a rash or redness of the skin
  • fluid leaking from the nipple in a woman who isn’t pregnant or breast feeding
  • changes in the position of nipple

It may help to find a comfortable and quiet place to do this. You may prefer to do this in the shower or bath, by running a soapy hand over each breast and under both armpits.

Remember to check the area near to your breast as well as your breasts. For example, the nearby armpit and the area above your breast. 

Book an appointment to see your doctor, without delay if you notice any of these changes.

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. In England, the screening programme is currently extending the age range from 47 to 73. Women older than this can ask to carry on having screening every 3 years.

Even with the breast screening programme, some breast cancers are first spotted by women themselves. This might be because the woman is too young to have started screening. Or it may be because she stopped having screening when she reached the age of 70. Or it could be that a breast cancer starts to cause symptoms between mammograms. This is known as an interval cancer.

Benefits of finding cancer early

Breast cancers found early need less treatment and are more likely to be cured. 

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 changes

If you have any breast changes and are worried that you might have cancer you should go to your GP.