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Breast awareness

Key points

  • Breast awareness means knowing how your breasts look and feel so you can recognise any changes.
  • Being breast aware can help to find breast cancer early, which may make it easier to treat.
  • There isn’t a set way to check your breasts but try following the Department of Health’s five-point code.
  • Your breasts change throughout your life and often changes are nothing to be concerned about.
  • Make sure you’re familiar with breast changes that you should see your GP about.

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Breast awareness means being familiar with how your breasts look and feel, and knowing what changes to look out for in order to pick up any serious changes as early as possible.

About breast awareness

Being breast aware means knowing how your breasts look and feel, and understanding and recognising how they change at different times of the month. Being aware of what is normal for you will help you to spot any unusual changes if they happen.

Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer in women in the UK, affecting one in eight women at some time in their life. Being breast aware can help to find breast cancer early. If breast cancer is found earlier, it may be easier to treat and improve your chance of a full recovery.

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

How to be breast aware

Breast awareness means getting into the habit of feeling and looking at your breasts regularly so you know what’s normal for you.

There isn’t a formal set of instructions for checking your breasts, but it’s important to look for any changes in their appearance as well as checking how they feel. Check yourself in any way that is 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

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.

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 straight away.
  5. Attend routine breast screening if you're 50 or over.

Common breast changes

Your breasts change throughout life and are affected by your menstrual cycle, age, pregnancy, the menopause 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. For example, 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.

You may also notice changes in your breasts if you use hormonal contraception, such as the contraceptive pill or hormone injections.

It’s also likely that you will notice changes in your breasts if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding. See our frequently asked questions for more information.

During and after the menopause (the time when your periods stop), your breasts may change in size and shape. They may also feel softer and less lumpy as activity in the milk-producing tissue of your breasts stops.

If you have a hysterectomy before the menopause, unless your ovaries are also removed your breasts may still feel tender or lumpy each month, even though your periods will have stopped. This is 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.

Breast changes to seek advice about

It’s important that you see your GP if you notice that anything about your breasts has changed from what is normal for you, especially if it’s only in one breast. Breast changes to look out for include:

  • a change in the size, shape or feel of your breast
  • dimpling, puckering or redness of the skin
  • redness, a rash or crusting on your nipple or surrounding area
  • a change in your nipple, such as in its shape or if it turns inwards to your breast (becomes inverted)
  • a discharge from your nipple (unless you’re breastfeeding)
  • bleeding from your nipple area
  • pain in part of your breast or armpit
  • swelling, thickening or a lump in your breast or armpit

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

 

For answers to frequently asked questions on this topic, see FAQs.

For sources and links to further information, see Resources.

 

Produced by Polly Kerr, Bupa Health Information Team, March 2013.

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  • This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The content is intended only for general information and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the about our health information page.

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