Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women in the UK, with one woman diagnosed every 10 minutes.
In the UK, around 55,000 women and 370 men are diagnosed with breast cancer every year. As scary as this statistic sounds, the earlier you catch cancer, the better your chances are of surviving it. That's why it's so important to be familiar with your breasts and regularly self-check for any changes.
There aren't always obvious signs or symptoms of breast cancer, but the more you know your breasts and what to look out for, the better.
In this guide, we'll look at when, how often, and what to look for when examining your breasts, as well as what medical options for breast health are available.
Healthy breasts come in all shapes and sizes. However, it's important to recognise when something doesn't feel right. Before checking your breasts, you need to know what normal (for you) feels like.
When you feel your breasts, you might notice lumpy or textured breast tissue. Normal breast tissue often feels lumpy, and this varies from person to person. It's also important to note that the texture of your breast tissue can vary at different times in a woman's menstrual cycle, and even throughout their life.
This is why it is best to check your breasts at the same time each month. If you do this, you will quickly discover what is “normal” for you, and if you notice any changes, you can get them checked with your doctor.
It's recommended to check your breasts once a month, at the same time. If you have periods, it's best to check them after the end of your period, but if you have any questions or concerns you can, of course, ask your doctor at any time.
To keep on top of things, it might be a good idea to keep a diary of your breast checks, so you can record and track any changes you notice.
It should only take a few minutes to check your breasts, and when doing it, remember to check the whole breast area. This includes the breast itself, your upper chest, and your armpits and surrounding tissue. Check your breasts wherever you feel comfortable: in front of the mirror standing up, sitting or lying down, or even in the shower.
Raise your arms above your head and relax them by your side. See what is normal for you. You can also lift each breast and check them individually, keeping an eye on the skin and texture.
To start feeling your breasts, use medium to firm pressure, and with the pads of your fingers, massage your breasts (starting at the nipple) in a small spiral pattern. Continue with this pattern all the way to the top of your breast near where you can feel your collarbone. Once you've done the top, repeat the pattern with your arm raised over your head and massage to the bottom and side of your breast up into your armpit. Swap arms and do the exact same thing on your other breast.
Finally, squeeze your nipple gently and check for any discharge.
When doing your regular self-checks, there are signs and symptoms to watch out for. It's important not to panic if you notice any of the below, but it's a good idea to give your doctor a call to make sure everything is OK.
As well as regular self-checks, there are medical checks you can have to keep on top of your breast health.
The most common of these is a breast screening or mammogram.
A breast screening is an x-ray of your breasts. Mammograms can detect tumors that are too small for you to feel when you check your breasts yourself, or for doctors to feel.
Tumors can be cancerous (malignant) or non-cancerous (benign) and a mammogram can detect both. These scans can catch some breast cancers early - making it easier for them to be treated and keep you safe and healthy.
The NHS Breast Screening Programme invites all females ages 50 to 71 registered with a GP for breast screening every three years. You'll automatically get your first invite between the ages of 50 and 53.
However, if you have symptoms your GP might refer you for a breast screening, even if you have recently had a clear screening.
It's important not to wait for your next scheduled appointment if you notice anything unusual when checking your breasts yourself and to see your GP as soon as possible. Your GP will examine you and if they think you need further assessment, they'll refer you to a specialist clinic for further tests. These can include an ultrasound, biopsy, needle aspiration, needle biopsy, and vacuum-assisted biopsy.
Cancer Research UK: Advice on tests for breast cancer
Gov.UK: Details on breast screening programme
NHS: Information on mammograms