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Breast awareness

Becoming more aware of how your breasts look and feel will help you to become familiar with what’s normal for you. As you get to know your breasts, you will find it easier to recognise how they change at different times of the month. This also means you’ll be able to spot any unusual changes if they happen.

Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer in women in the UK. It affects one in eight women at some time in their life. Being breast aware can help to find breast cancer early. If it’s found early, it may be easier to treat and treat successfully.

If you’re over 50 and registered with a GP, you will be invited for breast screening. This involves having an X-ray of your breast called a mammogram. It’s important that you’re still breast aware even if you go for regular screening.

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Breast cancer
Dr Paul Zollinger-Read

Details

  • How to be breast aware How to be breast aware

    Breast awareness will help you to get into the habit of feeling and looking at your breasts regularly so you know what’s normal for you.

    It’s important to look for any changes in the appearance of your breasts as well as checking how they feel. Check yourself in any way that feels comfortable and convenient for you. For example, you may find it easier to check your breasts: 

    • before a bath or shower, using a mirror to look at your breasts from different angles
    •  while you’re in the bath or shower, using soapy hands 
    •  when you’re lying down in bed 
    •  while you’re getting dressed

    Once you’re familiar with the usual feel and appearance of your breasts, it should be easier to notice if anything changes.

    If you feel uncomfortable or anxious about checking your breasts, you may find it helpful to discuss your worries with your GP or nurse.

    Breast self referral

    If you are experiencing the symptoms of suspected breast cancer and have Bupa health insurance, there is usually no need for a GP referral. Call our team to speak to a specialist advisor or nurse.

    Excludes some company schemes. Subject to member’s underwriting terms and any pre-existing conditions. Eligibility checks are required for pre-authorisation.

  • Five-point breast awareness code Five-point breast awareness code

    The UK Department of Health has produced a five-point breast awareness code.

    1. Know what is normal for you.
    2. Check both the look and feel of your breasts.
    3. Know what changes to look and feel for.
    4. Report any changes to your GP without delay.
    5. Attend routine breast screening if you're 50 or over.
  • Common breast changes Common breast changes

    Your breasts change throughout life and can be affected by several factors. These include the time in your menstrual cycle, age, pregnancy, the menopause (the time when your periods stop) and the type of contraception that you use. So it’s important to remember that changes in how your breasts look and feel aren’t always a cause for concern.

    Your menstrual cycle

    Experiencing breast pain during part of your menstrual cycle is quite common. This is known as cyclical breast pain. It can range from mild discomfort and tenderness to a dull or aching pain. The pain usually lasts for one to four days and tends to occur at the pre-menstrual stage, before your period starts. It’s not unusual for your breasts to feel tender or lumpy just before your period, especially near your armpits. This happens when the milk-producing tissue in your breasts becomes active.

    Pregnancy and breastfeeding

    It’s likely that you will notice changes in your breasts if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding. Breastfeeding can naturally cause some changes in your breasts. See our FAQs section for more information about this.

    Menopause

    There’s another type of breast pain that you might have – it’s called non-cyclical breast pain. You can get it at any age but it most commonly happens after you’ve been through the menopause. This type of breast pain might also be caused by some medicines such as hormonal contraceptives or injections.

    During and after the menopause, your breasts may change in size and shape. They may feel softer and less lumpy as activity in the milk-producing tissue of your breasts stops.

    Hysterectomy before the menopause

    If you have a hysterectomy before the menopause, your breasts may still feel tender or lumpy each month unless your ovaries were also removed. This happens because your ovaries are still working and producing hormones. You may notice monthly changes in your breasts until the time when your periods would have stopped naturally.

  • Worried about breast lumps?

    Get a picture of your current health and potential future health risks with a Bupa health assessment. Find out more today.

  • Breast changes to seek advice about Breast changes to seek advice about

    An image showing the symptoms of breast cancer An image showing the symptoms of breast cancer An image showing the symptoms of breast cancer An image showing the symptoms of breast cancer An image showing the symptoms of breast cancer An image showing the symptoms of breast cancer An image showing the symptoms of breast cancer An image showing the symptoms of breast cancer

    These symptoms don’t necessarily mean that you have breast cancer but if you have any of them, speak to your GP.

  • FAQs FAQs

    I'm breastfeeding and have noticed some changes in my breasts. Should I be worried?

    Answer

    It’s common for your breasts to feel different from usual while you’re breastfeeding. Keep in mind that breastfeeding can naturally cause some changes in your breasts such as:

    • lumpiness 
    • swelling and tenderness 
    • sore or cracked nipples 
    • milk leaking from your nipples
    Although it’s possible to get breast cancer during or after breastfeeding, it’s normal to spot changes in your breasts during this time and doesn’t mean you should be worried. Breastfeeding has also been linked with reducing the risk of developing breast cancer. However, the protective impact that breastfeeding may have isn’t quite clear at the moment. It’s important that you continue to check your breasts for any changes while you’re breastfeeding, as you would usually. 

    If you’re concerned or notice any unusual changes in your breasts, speak to your GP surgery or midwife. If you notice changes that affect one side only, it’s particularly important to seek medical advice.

    I've heard that men can get breast cancer too. Is this true?

    Answer

    Yes, men can get breast cancer but it's very rare. About 350 men develop breast cancer each year in the UK. Because of this low rate, not everyone is aware that it can affect men too. Age is the biggest risk factor for men. Although men of all ages are at risk, breast cancer is most common in men over 60.

    Usually, the first symptom of breast cancer in men is a lump in the breast tissue. Other symptoms can include:

    • swelling in the breast area 
    • discharge or bleeding from the nipple 
    • the nipple turning inwards (inverting) 
    • redness or a rash on the nipple 
    • a lump in the armpit 
    • an ulcer on the skin of the breast

    These symptoms aren’t always caused by cancer but if you have any of them, speak to your GP.

    Will changing my diet reduce my risk of getting breast cancer?

    Answer

    How your diet affects your risk of getting breast cancer is an ongoing area of research. It’s not a very easy thing to find out. But it is known that eating a healthy, balanced diet can help prevent a variety of conditions, including some cancers.

    Several large and ongoing scientific studies have looked at lots of aspects of diet and breast cancer. These are some of the key findings which suggest things that may help reduce your risk. Do bear in mind though that it’s likely a variety of things together reduce the risk, not just diet alone.

    • Weight gain may increase the risk of breast cancer, particularly if you’re past the menopause. It’s not very clear how age is connected to weight gain and how this affects the risk. We do know though that being a healthy weight throughout your life is important to prevent several long-term conditions. So if you are overweight, changing your diet and increasing your activity levels will help you get to a healthy weight. 
    • A diet high in saturated fat may increase the risk. Foods high in this type of fat include butter, cheese, red meats, cakes and biscuits. Reduce how much you eat of these and choose low-fat options (but do look at how much sugar they contain). 
    • Alcohol may increase your risk. If you do drink, stay within recommended guidelines. Don’t binge drink and remember to have alcohol-free days. More information about this can be found in our sensible drinking topic. 
    • Eating fibre, especially from vegetables, may reduce your risk. It’s a good reason to make sure you’re eating the recommended five portions a day. 
    • A Mediterranean diet might reduce the risk in post-menopausal women. This diet includes plenty of the components of what’s considered to be a healthy diet. It involves eating lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grains, beans, olive oil and fish.
  • Resources Resources

    Further information

    Sources

    • Breast awareness. NHS Breast Cancer Screening Programme. www.cancerscreening.nhs.uk, accessed January 2015
    • Cancer registration statistics, England, 2012. Office for National Statistics. www.ons.gov.uk, published June 2014
    • Breast cancer incidence statistics: lifetime risk (females). Cancer Research UK. www.cancerresearchuk.org, reviewed 2012
    • Breast awareness. Cancer Research UK. www.cancerresearchuk.org, reviewed July 2014
    • Breast cancer screening. PatientPlus. www.patient.co.uk/patientplus.asp, reviewed July 2014
    • Be breast aware. NHS Breast Cancer Screening Programme. www.cancerscreening.nhs.uk, accessed January 2015
    • Becoming breast aware: how to check your breasts. Irish Cancer Society. www.cancer.ie, accessed January 2015
    • Breast awareness. Macmillan Cancer Support. www.macmillan.org.uk, published January 2011
    • Understanding breast changes. National Cancer Institute. www.cancer.gov, published March 2014
    • Breast pain. PatientPlus. www.patient.co.uk/patientplus.asp, reviewed February 2013
    • Breast awareness: normal breast changes. Breast Cancer Care. www.breastcancercare.org.uk, reviewed April 2014
    • Breast screening: self examination between visits – changes to look out for. Public Health Agency (Northern Ireland). www.cancerscreening.hscni.net, accessed January 2015
    • Changes to look and feel for. Breast Cancer Care. www.breastcancercare.org.uk, reviewed August 2014
    • Signs and symptoms. Breakthrough Breast Cancer. www.breakthrough.org.uk, reviewed November 2014
    • Know your breasts – pregnancy and breastfeeding. Action Breast Cancer, Irish Cancer Society. www.cancer.ie, published August 2008
    • Breast changes during and after pregnancy. Breast Cancer Care. www.breastcancercare.org.uk, reviewed November 2014
    • McCready J, Arendt M L, Glover E, et al. Pregnancy associated breast cancers are driven by differences in adipose cells present during lactation. Breast Cancer Res 2014; 16:R2. doi:10.1186/bcr3594
    • Yang L, Jacobsen K. A systematic review of the association between breastfeeding and breast cancer. J Womens Health 2008; 17(10):1635–45. doi:10.1089/jwh.2008.0917
    • Breast cancer and breastfeeding: collaborative reanalysis of individual data from 47 epidemiological studies in 30 countries, including 50,302 women with breast cancer and 96,973 without the disease. Collaborative Group on Hormonal
    • Factors in Breast Cancer. Lancet 2002; 360(9328):187–95. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(02)09454-0
    • Breast cancer in men. Medscape. www.emedicine.medscape.com, published October 2014
    • Men with breast cancer. Breast Cancer Care. www.breastcancercare.org.uk, reviewed May 2014
    • Male breast cancer. PatientPlus. www.patient.co.uk/patientplus.asp, reviewed January 2012
    • Signs and symptoms of breast cancer in men. American Cancer Society. www.cancer.org, published October 2014
    • Diet and breast cancer risk. Cancer Research UK. www.cancerresearchuk.org, reviewed 28 July 2014
    • Cancer prevention. World Health Organization. www.who.int, accessed 29 January 2015
    • Emaus MJ, van Gils CH, Bakker MF, et al. Weight change in middle adulthood and breast cancer risk in the EPIC-PANACEA study. Int J Cancer 2014; 135:2887–99. doi:10.1002/ijc.28926
    • Lahmann PH, Schulz M, Hoffmann K, et al. Long-term weight change and breast cancer risk: the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC). BJC 2005; 93:582–89. doi:10.1038/sj.bjc.6602763
    • Obesity and overweight. World Health Organzation. www.who.int, published January 2015
    • Ferrari P, Rinaldi S, Jenab M, et al. Dietary fiber intake and risk of hormonal receptor–defined breast cancer in the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition study. Am J Clin Nutr 2013; 97(2):344–53. doi:10.3945/ajcn.112.034025
    • 8 tips for eating well. Eatwell Scotland. www.eatwellscotland.org, accessed 9 February 2015
    • Sieri S, Krogh V, Ferrari P, et al. Dietary fat and breast cancer risk in the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition. Am J Clin Nutr 2008; 88(5):1304–12. doi:10.3945/ajcn.2008.26090
    • Saturated fats. Eatwell Scotland.www.eatwellscotland.org, accessed 28 January 2015
    • Tjønneland A, Christensen J, Olsen A, et al. Alcohol intake and breast cancer risk: the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC). Cancer Causes & Control 2007;18(4):361–73
    • Does alcohol cause breast cancer? DrinkAware. www.drinkaware.co.uk, reviewed November 2014
    • Alcohol guidelines. House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, www.publications.parliament.uk, published 7 December 2011
    • Buckland G,Travier N, Cottet V, et al. Adherence to the Mediterranean diet and risk of breast cancer in the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition cohort study. Int J Cancer 2013; 132:2918–27. doi:10.1002/ijc.27958
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