Breast awareness

Expert reviewer, Dr Adrian Raby, General Practitioner
Next review due November 2020

Checking your breasts and becoming more aware of how they usually look and feel will help you to feel confident about noticing any changes. This is important as it can help you spot the signs of breast cancer.

Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer in the UK. It’s also by far the most common cancer in women. Around one in every three women diagnosed with cancer will have breast cancer and it affects one in eight women at some time in their life. Checking your breasts and being aware of any changes can help to find breast cancer early. If it’s found early, it may be easier to treat successfully.

Breast screening

If you’re over 50 and registered with a GP, you’ll be invited for breast screening. This means you’ll be asked to have an X-ray of your breast (a mammogram), every three years until the age of 70. It’s important to keep checking your breasts, even if you go for regular screening.

How to check your breasts

In the past, it was recommended that women check their breasts each month, by feeling every part of the breast using their hands. Now, doctors don’t recommend any set way to check your breasts. It’s more important that you’re aware of what’s normal for you, by looking at and feeling your breasts in any way that’s comfortable and convenient. So, you could check your breasts in the shower or bath, for example; 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.

However you check your breasts, you should be looking at:

  • the size and shape of your breast, including whether there are any lumps
  • your nipples and how they look and feel
  • the skin on your breasts
  • how your breasts feel – are they painful, for example?
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Five-point breast awareness code

You can use this five-point code to help you spot any changes in your breasts.

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

Breasts come in all shapes and sizes and everyone’s breasts are different. In women, they’re mostly made up of fatty tissue and glandular tissue. The glandular tissue produces milk when you’re breastfeeding.

Your breasts will change naturally each month and as you get older. Breasts are affected by hormones, and they change size and shape throughout a woman’s monthly cycle. This means they can feel tender and heavy, and feel lumpy. This usually happens just before your period and goes 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 the 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 to get ready for breastfeeding. Your breasts may get bigger and feel sore and tender.

When you reach the menopause, the amount of glandular tissue in your breasts reduces, because of the changes to your hormones. The amount of fatty tissue goes up. This can make your breasts feel different, and some women find they’re softer and less firm. As you come up to the menopause, you may find your breasts feel tender and lumpy, but this often changes once you’re past the menopause.

What to look for when checking your breasts

When you’re checking your breasts, you’re looking and feeling for changes that are different for you. It's important to check the whole of your breast area, not just the main part of your breast. 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 than shown in the picture.

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

Some of these symptoms can be due to many things, including the common breast changes listed above. There are also many causes of benign (non-cancerous) breast lumps. They can also be signs of breast cancer though, so if you do notice any of these changes, speak to your GP.

Frequently asked questions

  • It’s normal to notice some changes in your breasts when you’re breastfeeding. When you’re pregnant, your breasts change to get ready for breastfeeding , to make sure you have milk to feed your baby. Your breasts are likely to get bigger and heavier.

    As soon as you've had your baby, two hormones (prolactin and oxytocin) act on the glands in your breasts and you start to produce milk. When this happens, your breasts will probably feel full and warm.

    Breastfeeding itself can cause other changes in your breasts, such as the following.

    • Cracked and sore nipples, usually caused by your baby sucking on them.
    • Full and painful breasts (engorgement). This can develop when your breasts are making too much milk.
    • Slightly tender lumps in your breasts. This can develop if the milk ducts in your breasts get blocked.
    • A tender, warm and swollen area of your breast. This can be an infection called mastitis. If you have mastitis, you may also feel generally unwell and have a high temperature (fever).

    If you’re worried or notice any unusual changes in your breasts, speak to your midwife, health visitor or GP. If you notice changes that affect one side only, it’s particularly important to see your GP, because it’s still possible that changes can be due to breast cancer.

  • Yes, men can get breast cancer but it's rare. About 390 men develop breast cancer each year in the UK (compared to around 55,000 women). Although men of any age can develop breast cancer, it’s most common in men over 60.

    In men, the first symptom of breast cancer is usually a painless lump in your breast tissue. You can have other symptoms too, including:

    • one of your breasts gets bigger over a short period of time
    • discharge or bleeding from your nipple
    • your nipple turns inwards (inverting)
    • a painful breast
    • a lump in your armpit
    • an ulcer on the skin of your breast

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

  • Yes. Exactly how changing your lifestyle might lower your risk of getting breast cancer isn’t completely understood. But, what doctors and researchers do know is that many common cancers can be prevented by leading a healthy lifestyle. This means being active, being a healthy weight for your height and eating healthy foods.

    The main areas to think about in your lifestyle are as follows.

    • How active you are. Being active can reduce the likelihood of developing cancer, including breast cancer. This means being generally more active, for example watching less television, and doing at least 150 minutes of activity each week. You can do this in short sessions of 10 minutes or more, and you’ll need to be working hard enough to feel warm and a little out of breath.
    • Your weight. Being a healthy weight for your height can help to reduce your chances of developing breast cancer.
    • The amount of alcohol you drink . The more you drink, the greater your chances of developing cancer, including breast cancer. Guidelines are that both men and women shouldn’t drink more than 14 units of alcohol a week, and to spread this out over the week.
    • The foods you eat. Eating healthily means limiting the amount of high sugar and high fat foods you eat, to help you stay a healthy weight. Eating at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day may also help you to lower your risk of cancer.
    • If you have a young child and are able to breastfeed, choosing to do so can also help to lower your risk of breast cancer.

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Related information

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  • Reviewed by Graham Pembrey, Lead Health Editor, November 2017
    Expert reviewer, Dr Adrian Raby, General Practitioner
    Next review due November 2020