Knowing the early signs of breast cancer is key to detecting and treating the illness. But, many of us aren't aware of the lesser-known breast cancer symptoms to look out for.
We all know to look out for lumps or swelling around the breast tissue, but there are other changes to the size, shape, and color of the breast you should keep in mind during at-home breast exams. To help you understand the early symptoms of breast cancer to look out for while performing an at-home breast check, we asked the experts. “Many women are aware that a lump can be a possible sign of breast cancer, but it’s vital to be aware of all possible signs. If a breast change is new or unusual for you it’s important to get it checked out by your doctor,” Grete Brauten-Smith, Clinical Nurse Specialist at Breast Cancer Now tells us. And, if you're not sure how to do an at-home check, see our guide to how to check for breast cancer.
The most common early signs of breast cancer
"The best way to spot any possible signs and symptoms of breast cancer is to check your breasts regularly. It’s all about getting to know your breasts and what’s normal for you, so that you can identify any new or unusual changes," Brauten-Smith tells us.
Signs and symptoms to look out for include:
- A new lump in the upper chest or armpit
- Swelling in the breast or armpit
- A change to the skin around the breast such as puckering or dimpling
- A change in the color of the skin around the breast such as red or inflammation
- A change in the nipple such as inverted nipple, a rash or crusting around the nipple
- Discharge from either nipple
- A change in the size and shape of the breast
Is a sore breast a sign of breast cancer?
“On its own, pain in your breasts is not usually a sign of breast cancer Brauten-Smith says. It’s common for women to experience breast pain or tenderness during their menstrual cycle, as a side effect of certain medications (such as the contraceptive pill), because of Mastitis (which is most common in breastfeeding women) or during the early stages of pregnancy. Breast pain can even be down to wearing an unsupportive bra or following a chest injury.
However, if you're experiencing breast pain or pain in your armpit that you feel constantly or a lot of the time, you should seek medical advice and speak to your doctor, Brauten-Smith advises.
How to spot the early signs of breast cancer
"Women should be aware of what their breasts normally feel like and report if there is a consistent and persistent change from the norm," advises Mr Dimitri J Hadjiminas, Consultant Breast & Endocrine Surgeon at The Harley Street Clinic.
“There’s no set number of times, or specific day women should their check breasts," adds Brauten-Smith. It’s all about getting to know your breasts and what’s normal for you. Making breast checking part of your routine—such as in the shower, when you’re getting dressed, or when you apply moisturizer—can help you to do it regularly.”
“With almost half of women not checking their breasts regularly for new or unusual changes [as found in the 2020 Breast Cancer Now YouGov survey] we want to encourage all women to make checking their breasts ‘a habit of a lifetime’,” says Brauten-Smith.
“Most breast changes won’t be cancer, however, women should get any new or unusual breast changes checked by their doctor right away, as on the occasions it is, the sooner breast cancer is found the more successful treatment is likely to be."
How to perform a breast check
Breast Cancer Now promotes the Touch, Look, Check method when it comes to at-home breast checks.
- Touch—feel around your breast tissue (with flat fingers) for anything new or unusual such as a lump or swelling.
- Look—in the mirror, check for signs that your breasts look different from normal. This could be the skin puckering or a new nipple inversion.
- Check—if you do spot any unusual changes or notice anything new, call your doctor and arrange an appointment for a further examination.
“Women should examine their breasts for lumps with the flat of the fingers of the opposite hand and look in the mirror for changes in the contour and shape. It may be easier to do this in the shower with a soapy hand to reduce the friction between the skin surfaces. If they think they feel a lump, they should examine the symmetrical area of the other breast, because if it is symmetrical, then it is likely to be normal for them” says Hadjiminas.
To check your breasts at home, you should:
- Find a comfortable place to check, in front of mirror, is usually best
- With one arm behind your head, use your opposite hands with flat fingers to move around the breast tissue and across your nipple in circular motions
- Move towards your collarbone and under your armpits too to feel for lumps to swelling
- Repeat on the other side
- In the mirror look at the size and shape of your breasts with your arms by your sides—notice any changes in appearance such as nipple discharge or red patches
- Repeat with your arms behind your head and then with your hands on your hips bending forward slightly
- If you spot any changes or anything new, speak with your doctor for medical advice
Breast cancer resources online
If you're concerned about any changes to your breasts, contact your doctor for further advice. For more information about breast cancer and further support see:
- Centres for Disease Control and Prevention
- CoopaFeel! Boob Check 101
- MacMillan Cancer Support
- National Breast Cancer Foundation
- Breast Cancer Now: The research & care charity
w&h thanks Grete Brauten-Smith, Clinical Nurse Specialist at Breast Cancer Now, Mr Dimitri J Hadjiminas MD, MPhil, FRCS, Consultant Breast & Endocrine Surgeon at The Harley Street Clinic and Dr Bana Haddad, GP and Medical Advisor to Breast Cancer UK.
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Ciara McGinley is a meditation practitioner and health journalist. She qualified as a meditation teacher with the British School of Meditation in 2020 and is the founder of Finding Quiet, a series of classes, workshops and retreats that combine meditation practices and mindfulness techniques to make mindful living realistic in an always-switched-on modern world. She is all about bettering that mind-body connection but believes wellness looks different to everyone.
Ciara is also the former Health Channel Editor at woman&home and has covered all things health and wellbeing for years, from fitness to sleep to relationships.
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