Breast cancer symptoms

Expert reviewer, Dr Adrian Raby, General Practitioner
Next review due April 2023

Regularly checking your breasts and being aware of any changes may help you to spot early signs and symptoms of breast cancer. If you have breast cancer, diagnosing it early means treatment is more likely to be successful. 

A woman is thinking

How to check your breasts

There’s no recommended set way to check your breasts. It’s more important that you become aware of what’s normal for you, by regularly looking at and feeling your breasts in any way that’s comfortable and convenient. It might work for you to check your breasts in the shower or bath, when you’re getting dressed or when you’re in bed. You might notice that your breasts feel different at different times in the month. It’s a good idea to become familiar with what’s normal for you at different times.

Whatever way you check your breasts, you should be looking at:

  • the size and shape of your breast including if there are any lumps
  • your nipples – how they look and feel, and if there’s any discharge
  • the skin on your breasts
  • how your breasts feel – are they painful, for example?

In the UK, all women between the ages of 50 and 70, are invited for breast screening, every three years. This involves having an X-ray of your breast (a mammogram), to check for breast cancer. You might be eligible for screening before the age of 50 if you have a strong family history of breast cancer. Check with your GP if you think this might apply to you. It’s important to keep checking your breasts, even if you go for regular screening.

Symptoms of breast cancer

It's important to check the whole of your breast area. This includes both breasts, your armpits and up to your collarbone. The illustrations below show you what to look out for, but remember these symptoms might happen on a different part of the breast area from that shown in the picture.

An image showing how a lump can be a symptom of breast cancer 
An image showing how discharge can be a symptom of breast cancer 
An image showing how a change in the texture of your skin can be a symptom of breast cancer 
An image showing how a rash can be a symptom of breast cancer 
Infographic showing how a change to your nipple can be a symptom of breast cancer 
An image showing how pain in your armpit can be a symptom of breast cancer 
An image showing how a change in the size or shape of your breast can be a symptom of breast cancer 

These are the most common symptoms of breast cancer.

  • A lump or thickening in your breast. This will feel different from the rest of your breast tissue.
  • Discharge or bleeding from your nipple. The discharge is new and isn’t milky.
  • A change in the look or texture of your skin. Your skin might be red, puckered or look dimpled like the skin of an orange.
  • Inflammation or a rash on or around your nipple. There may be redness, a rash or crusting on your nipple or around it.
  • A change to your nipple. This might be a change to its shape, or if it becomes sunken or inverted (turns inward).
  • A lump or pain in your armpit. You might notice a lump in your armpit or feel pain there.
  • A change in the size or shape of your breast. You may notice this more so when you move your arms.

Having these symptoms doesn’t necessarily mean you have breast cancer. Breast lumps are often benign (non-cancerous) and there are many causes of breast changes; for more information see our section: Common breast changes. But it’s always important to get any changes checked out, so if you notice any of these symptoms, see your GP as soon as possible. They will assess you and refer you to a breast clinic for further tests if they think necessary.

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Common breast changes

Over time, lots of changes happen to your breasts that aren’t related to breast cancer. Your breasts are affected by your hormones so they may change size and shape throughout your monthly cycle. They might feel tender and heavy just before your period, and go back to normal once it starts. It’s normal for many women to find lumpy areas in their breast which come and go as their hormones change during their cycle. But if a lump appears and doesn’t go, see your GP for advice.

If you're pregnant, your breasts will change while your baby is developing. This is because they are getting ready for breastfeeding. Your breasts may get bigger and feel sore and tender. Your breasts will also feel different if you’re breastfeeding. You may have cracked and sore nipples, and your breasts may feel full and painful if they’re making too much milk. You might notice tender lumps in your breasts if you develop an abscess (infection) due to a blocked milk duct. It’s still important to get any lumps or other new symptoms checked out if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding.

As you reach the menopause, the amount of glandular tissue (milk-producing tissue) in your breasts reduces because of the changes to your hormones. This can make your breasts feel different – they may feel smaller, lumpy, softer and less firm.

Always get any new, unusual changes to your breasts checked out – particularly a change that affects only one side.

Breast cancer - early diagnosis

Bethan talks to us about spotting the signs of breast cancer early

Frequently asked questions

  • In men, the first symptom of breast cancer is usually a painless lump under the nipple or areola (the dark skin around the nipple). You can have other symptoms too, including:

    • swelling of your chest area
    • discharge or bleeding from your nipple
    • your nipple turns inwards (inverting)
    • a lump in your armpit
    • an ulcer on your chest or nipple

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

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  • Reviewed by Pippa Coulter, Freelance Health Editor, April 2020
    Expert reviewer, Dr Adrian Raby, General Practitioner
    Next review due April 2023