Expert / 8 June, 2023 / Christina Walter

How To Check Breasts: When To Be Concerned, When To See Your GP

NHS GP Doctor Dr Raj Arora shares the low-down on symptoms of breast cancer, what to look out for and when to get help. 

Breast cancer is a type of cancer that starts in the breasts. It occurs when the cells in the breast divide abnormally and create a mass. If left untreated, these cells can continue to grow and spread to other parts of the body.

Breast cancer statistics UK

Around 55,000 women and 370 men are diagnosed with breast cancer annually in the UK – equivalent to a diagnosis every 10 minutes.

Around 11,500 women and 85 men die annually from breast cancer in the UK. Breast cancer is the most common cancer in the UK; a woman’s lifetime risk of developing breast cancer is 1 in 8.

Surviving breast cancer

Breast cancer survival is improving due to a combination of improvements in treatments and care.  Early detection is key and can take place through screening and raising awareness on self-assessment.

The earlier breast cancer is diagnosed, the better the chance of successful treatment.  Therefore, it is important to check your breasts and to be able to identify what is normal for you versus what is abnormal. If in doubt – always see your GP!

What are the signs/symptoms of breast cancer?

Common breast cancer signs and symptoms include:

  • A lump or swelling in the breast, upper chest or armpit
  • Changes in the size or shape of your breast
  • Change in skin texture overlying the breast – this may present as skin puckering or dimpling
  • Nipple inversion
  • Nipple discharge or bleeding
  • Rash or crusting to the nipple

How to reduce your risk of developing breast cancer:

  • Eat a healthy balanced diet
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Stop smoking
  • Reduce alcohol intake

These lifestyle changes can help reduce your risk of developing breast cancer. However, there are some fixed risk factors that can increase your risk of developing breast cancer. These include:

  • Being a woman (female assigned at birth) 99% of breast cancer cases occur in women
  • Having a family history of breast cancer – if you have a family member diagnosed with breast cancer – see your doctor to manage your risk
  • Getting older – 80% of breast cancer cases occur in those who are over the age of 50 

How to check your breasts?

Healthy breasts come in all shapes, sizes and densities. It is important to know what is “normal” for you so that if anything changes you can easily pick these changes up early. I would recommend checking your breasts/chest regularly. Try to do it at least monthly at the same time each month. Try to avoid checking around your period as there may be breast tenderness and cyclical changes. Try to build your “self-check”  into your routine – eg. in the shower – to prevent yourself from forgetting to check! There is no right or wrong way of checking your breasts, but the steps below may help guide you.

Steps to checking your breasts:

  1. LOOK at your breasts in the mirror. Look for any skin changes, nipple inversion, discharge/bleeding from the nipple. Look for any obvious lumps/bumps. Get to know what is “normal” for you.
  2. FEEL – feel with the flat of your 4 fingers. Split the breast into quarters and go around in each corner to feel for any lumps, thickened tissue, pain or a sudden change in shape or size.
  3. Always examine the upper chest and armpits; breast tissue extends into the armpit. Look for changes to the skin and FEEL for any enlarged lymph nodes/ lumps.
  4. If you notice anything that concerns you – you should book in to see your doctor urgently.

When to be concerned?

Many symptoms can be concerning, but it is important to remember that not all lumps in the breast are cancerous. 9 out of 10 breast lumps are harmless. We call these “Benign lumps” in the breast. Other causes of breast pain can include menstruation (cyclical pain), pregnancy, and skin infections.

Any new changes should be reported but the “red flag” signs below should not be ignored:

  1. “Orange peel” /dimpling skin changes
  2. Nipple inversion and tethering of the nipple
  3. Discharge/blood from the nipple
  4. Lumps that are not mobile
  5. Lumps growing in size (even if they have been checked before)
  6. Lumps in the armpit or upper chest

If you have any of the above symptoms, seeing your GP for a full assessment is very important.

Article by Dr Raj Arora

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