Breast cancer symptoms: Catch it early

As a centre of excellence for breast reconstruction we know how important it is to check your breasts on a regular basis so that you know the size, shape and feel of them. By doing that, it’s more likely that you’ll notice when there are changes. It doesn’t matter when you check your breasts, as long as you check regularly on at least a monthly basis.

The earlier breast cancer is diagnosed, the better the chance of successful treatment. According to Cancer Research UK, “When diagnosed at its earliest stage, around all women with breast cancer will survive their disease for five years or more, compared with 3 in 20 women when the disease is diagnosed at the latest stage.”

Tips for checking your breasts:

  1. Establish a routine for yourself – by doing that, the easier it will be for you to see if something has changed. If you still have periods, then a good time would be several days after your period has ended when your breasts are least likely to be tender or swollen. If you don’t have periods, then it’s often a good idea to choose a day that you can remember at the start or end of a month.
  2. Work through each part of your breast and include the outer area, upper area, near your armpit and then the lower part.
  3. Keep a diary of what you find when you’re checking your breasts. You could include a drawing of your breasts with notes on where you feel any changes. This will help you remember what is normal for your breasts.
  4. Don’t panic if you do find a lump. Many women have some lumps or lumpy areas in their breasts all the time and most breast lumps turn out to be non-cancerous.
  5. Contact your doctor right away if you find any changes.

How to check

Start by looking at your breasts in the mirror with shoulders straight and your arms on your hips and look for any changes. Then raise your arms and look for the same changes.

Then feel your breasts while lying down, using your right hand to feel your left breast and then your left hand to feel your right breast. Keep your fingers flat and together and use a circular motion. Make sure you cover the entire breast. You could start at the nipple then move to the outer edge of the breast. Move your fingers up and down vertically in rows like you are mowing a lawn. Make sure you feel all the tissue from the front to the back. Use light pressure for skin and tissue just beneath, medium pressure for tissue in the middle of your breasts then firm pressure for deep tissue at the back.

Finally, feel your breasts while you are standing or sitting. Many women feel this is easiest when their skin is wet and slippery, so they prefer to do this in the shower. Cover your entire breast as explained above.

Changes to look out for

If you have any of the changes below, it is important to see your doctor and get them checked out.

Breast lump – a lump may be felt, but not seen. Can you feel a lump or swelling in your breast, upper chest or armpit?

Change in size, shape or feel of the breast – can you see any change in size or shape? For example, one breast might become larger or lower than the other. Many healthy women find their breasts feel lumpy and tender before their period

Breast pain – If the pain is constant and can be located in your breast and armpit, it’s best to get this checked.

Change to skin texture – are there any changes in skin texture? Changes could include puckering, dimpling, a rash or redness to the skin of the breast. The skin might look like orange peel or the texture might be different.

Change in nipples – do either of your nipples look different? One nipple might turn in or sink into the breast when it normally turns out. If your nipples have always been inverted it is highly unlikely that this is cancer, however if your nipples suddenly invert, you must get this checked straight away. If your nipples suddenly change direction this is something to be mindful of.

Fluid leaking from your nipple – have you noticed any unusual discharge from your nipples (and you’re not pregnant or breast feeding) then you should see your doctor.

Rash or crusting – if you can see any rash or crusting of the nipple or surrounding area then this could be a rare skin condition that is sometimes the sign of an underlying breast cancer. The area can be itchy and looks a bit like eczema.

Learn more about breast cancer, including what to look out for and how to prevent it.

Sources: NHSBreast Cancer NowCancer Research

Page last reviewed on 02/10/2019