Catching breast cancer early – lumps and other signs to look out for
Finding a breast lump can be very worrying. It’s something that many women will go through at some point and in most cases, it’s nothing to worry about. But breast lumps can be an early sign of breast cancer, so it’s important to know what to look out for and check your breasts regularly and see a doctor straight away if you have any concerns.
What does a breast cancer lump feel like?
Breast lumps can be many different shapes, sizes and textures. They can be small or large, soft or firm, rough or smooth, fixed or movable. Lumps can feel different at varying times during your menstrual cycle, if you still have periods. It is very useful to examine yourself a few days after your period has finished or around the same time of the month. The key is to get used to what your breasts feel like normally, so that if something feels different, you have detected it quickly and can seek medical help.
If you’ve found a breast lump, it isn’t possible to tell if it’s cancerous just by feeling it – which is why it’s so important to get it seen by a doctor.
If a breast lump is cancerous, finding it early can make it easier to treat. Although feeling a lump in your breast can feel quite scary, it’s good to remember that most breast lumps are not cancer.
It’s also important to note that breast lumps are not the only sign of breast cancer – and not all women who have breast cancer notice a lump. Apart from feeling your breasts, it is a great idea to look at your breasts in front of the mirror and raise your arms. Compare one breast to the other and look for:
- Thickening, rashes or redness in your skin or nipples
- Changes in breast size, shape or texture especially comparing one side to the other
- Swelling – a change in the contour of the breast
- Changes to the shape or position of the nipples or a crustiness to the nipple and skin around it
- Discharge from the nipples that stains your bra/clothing without squeezing, especially if blood stained.
If you spot any changes to your breasts, speak to a doctor.
You should also make sure you attend any regular screening appointments for breast cancer. At these appointments, you’ll have a mammogram (breast X-rays), which can identify breast cancer before any lumps are felt. All women will be invited for breast screening by the NHS every three years between the ages of 50 and 71.
Where are most breast cancer lumps found?
Breast cancer lumps are most common in the top outer area of the breast, but they can be found anywhere in the breast area and into the armpits. When you check your breasts, make sure you feel right up to the collarbone. You should also feel in your armpits for any lumps, bumps or changes. Lymph glands in the armpit can feel swollen when someone has breast cancer, although this is not always a sign of cancer, as they can also become swollen if you have an infection or cold.
Here are our top tips for checking your breasts:
- Get to know your breasts – Find a time and a place where you feel comfortable. Use your hands and fingers to press and feel all over the breast area. Some women find it easiest in the bath or shower. Remember, everyone’s breasts are different, so you want to find out what feels normal for you.
- Use a mirror to help – Make sure to look at the breasts in front of the mirror and raise your arms above your head to look at the lower part of the breasts. Look to see if the outlines of your breasts look the same or if there any areas bulging out or pulled in (puckered).
- Don’t forget your armpits – Make sure you check the entire breast area. Then also check right up to the collarbone and into your armpits.
- Find your routine – It’s a good idea to check your breasts regularly, ideally once a month. This will help you learn what feels normal for you and make it easier to spot if anything has changed. Think about a time that is easy to remember every month, so checking your breasts becomes a habit.
- Remember to check for other signs and symptoms – You should also keep an eye out for any other changes to your breasts. This includes any thickening, crusting, rashes or redness in your skin, changes in size, shape or texture, swelling or pain, changes to the shape or position of the nipples (inverted nipple or dimpling) or discharge.
- If in doubt, see a doctor – If you feel anything different or unusual, speak to your GP, or you can book an appointment at one of our one stop breast clinics.
Are breast cancer lumps painful?
Many women experience pain in their breasts at some point. Finding anything unusual in your breasts can be worrying, however, painful breasts are not usually a sign of cancer. Pain may be associated with breast cancer – but breast cancer lumps are also often painless.
You may find that your breasts hurt around the time of your period. Pain in the breasts can also be caused by injury, mastitis (infection) or a breast cyst. Hormonal changes during pregnancy or menopause can also cause pain in the breasts.
If you’re experiencing breast pain and have any concerns, make sure you see a doctor.
What kind of lumps are normal in breasts?
Not all breast lumps are cancerous, in fact most aren’t. Many women find that their breasts change through their monthly cycle. You may notice that your breasts often feel lumpy just before your period as part of these regular monthly changes.
Breast cysts, which are sacs of fluid in the breast, are a common cause of breast lumps. Women of all ages may develop breast cysts, although they are particularly common in women over 35. Breast cysts are generally harmless and will go away on their own or they can be drained through fine needle aspiration. They usually stop forming after menopause.
Sometimes lumps are areas of fibrous, glandular tissue called fibroadenomas. They are common in women under the age of 30. But, again, they are usually harmless and won’t require any treatment.
Everyone’s breasts are different. It’s normal to experience changes in your breasts throughout your life. The key thing to look out for is any unusual changes for you. If you’re unsure about anything, speak to a doctor.
What should I do if I suspect I have a lump?
If you feel a lump in your breast or notice any other changes or anything unusual, you should see a doctor. You can speak to your GP or contact us on 0808 2536 930 for an appointment at one of our one stop breast clinics. Appointments are usually available within 24 hours and there you can quickly see a breast surgeon who will discuss your symptoms with you and carry out an examination, including imaging. They’ll also be able to do any additional tests or scans needed to determine the cause of any lumps