Breast cancer prevention: how to check your breasts

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women in the UK, with around 150 people diagnosed every day. One in seven women will develop breast cancer, with most cases diagnosed in women aged over 50. Survival rates for breast cancer are good and improving all the time with new treatments. As with many types of cancer, early diagnosis means a better chance of successful treatment. 

Breast screening is important for women who are over 50, have a family history of breast cancer, and women who have an increased risk because of a BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation. You should examine your breasts once a month to check for any changes.

Changes to look for when checking your breasts

Finding a lump is the most common early symptom of breast cancer. However, it doesn’t always mean you have cancer and there are a number of other signs to look out for, including:

  • Changes in the size or shape of one breast, becoming either bigger or smaller than usual
  • Dimpling on the skin of your breast that looks like an orange peel
  • Lumps in your armpit or around the collarbone
  • One or both nipples turning inwards, becoming sore and crusty, or discharging liquid when you’re not breastfeeding
  • Skin on the breast appearing red or bruised for no reason and not fading

Natural changes in your breasts

Everyone’s breasts look and feel different; some breasts are naturally quite lumpy. Your breasts will also change over time, with hormones changing how they look and feel over the course of your menstrual cycle. They may feel tender and lumpier just before your period starts. Breastfeeding and menopause will cause changes in your breasts too, with most women finding their breasts become softer and less lumpy after menopause. 

Breast cancer in men

Men can develop breast cancer too, though it is much less common. Around one in 100 cases of breast cancer in the UK affect men. Most cases happen in men aged over 60. Signs of breast cancer are very similar in both men and women. Men should check for: 

  • Any hard, painless lumps in their chest
  • Bumps in the glands of their armpits 
  • Discharge from the nipple
  • Nipple turning in
  • Rash around the nipple that doesn’t fade

Get to know your breasts

An important part of checking your breasts is finding out what’s normal for you. How do they look and feel at different times of the month? To get to know your breasts, consider keeping a journal describing how they look and feel throughout the month. Make sure you do your breast exams at the same time each month; they’ll be less lumpy and tender if you check them a few days after your period.

Look in the mirror

Take a good look at your breasts in the mirror. Stand up straight with your shoulders squared and your hands on your hips. Note the size and shape of your breasts as well as the colour and texture of the skin. Look at your nipples and notice if one appears flatter than the other, turns inwards or points in a different direction. Turn from side to side so you can get a good view of both breasts.

Next, raise your arms above your head and look for the same signs. Notice if the shape of one breast looks different or unusual and check there is no discharge from your nipples. The only time your nipples should leak fluid is if you’re breastfeeding.

To check for any puckering or bulges in the skin, lean forward as this will make any changes more obvious.

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Feel for changes

Lie on your back, rest your left arm above your head and use your right hand to check your left breast. Keep your fingers flat and use the pads of your first three fingers with a firm and smooth touch. Work methodically to cover your whole breast, using a small circular motion to feel the tissue in the breast. Working from top to bottom and from one side to the other works well for many women to make sure you cover the whole area. Make sure you go all the way up to your collarbone, down to the top of your abdomen and from your armpit to the centre of your chest. 

Adjust the pressure of your fingers depending on which part of your breast you’re examining. Use light pressure on the skin and tissue just underneath your breasts, medium pressure on the area in the middle of your breasts and a firmer pressure to feel the deep tissue at the back of your breasts. 

Repeat the whole process on your right breast using your left hand. Then do the same while standing or sitting up. You may find this part easier to do in the shower when your skin is wet and slippery.

When to see your doctor

If you feel a lump when performing a breast exam, there’s no need to panic. Most lumps are not caused by cancer. If there are any other symptoms, if the lump has been there for longer than a month, or if it has grown or changed, then get it checked by your GP. They’ll examine your breasts and may refer you for a mammogram or a breast ultrasound scan

We hope you've found this article useful, however, it cannot be a substitute for a consultation with a specialist

If you're concerned about symptoms you're experiencing or require further information on the subject, talk to a GP or see an expert consultant at your local Spire hospital.

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Author Information

Cahoot Care Marketing

Niched in the care sector, Cahoot Care Marketing offers a full range of marketing services for care businesses including: SEO, social media, websites and video marketing, specialising in copywriting and content marketing.

Over the last five years Cahoot Care Marketing has built an experienced team of writers and editors, with broad and deep expertise on a range of care topics. They provide a responsive, efficient and comprehensive service, ensuring content is on brand and in line with relevant medical guidelines.

Their writers and editors include care sector workers, healthcare copywriting specialists and NHS trainers, who thoroughly research all topics using reputable sources including the NHS, NICE, relevant Royal Colleges and medical associations.

The Spire Content Hub project was managed by:

Lux Fatimathas, Editor and Project Manager

Lux has a BSc(Hons) in Neuroscience from UCL, a PhD in Cellular and Molecular Biology from the UCL Institute of Ophthalmology and experience as a postdoctoral researcher in developmental biology. She has a clear and extensive understanding of the biological and medical sciences. Having worked in scientific publishing for BioMed Central and as a writer for the UK’s Medical Research Council and the National University of Singapore, she is able to clearly communicate complex concepts.

Catriona Shaw, Lead Editor

Catriona has an English degree from the University of Southampton and more than 12 years’ experience copy editing across a range of complex topics. She works with a diverse team of writers to create clear and compelling copy to educate and inform.

Alfie Jones, Director — Cahoot Care Marketing

Alfie has a creative writing degree from UCF and initially worked as a carer before supporting his family’s care training business with copywriting and general marketing. He has worked in content marketing and the care sector for over 10 years and overseen a diverse range of care content projects, building a strong team of specialist writers and marketing creatives after founding Cahoot in 2016.