How to check your breasts – a guide
Knowing how to check your breasts is key to spotting early signs of breast cancer. As well as attending your routine screening if you’re aged 50-70, getting into a habit of regularly checking your breasts can help with early prevention of the disease.
“Healthy breasts come in all shapes and sizes, but checking your breasts regularly for any unusual changes can help you discover breast cancer early,” says Dr Margaret Wexler, a spokesperson and Head Of Science for the charity Breast Cancer UK.
“Even though 9 out of 10 lumps are harmless, if you find one, get it checked. Catching breast cancer early improves your chances of a full recovery if you are diagnosed with it.”
Why it’s important to check your breasts
Leading a healthy lifestyle is the best way to reduce your risk of developing breast cancer, but getting into a routine of regularly checking your breasts can help you spot it in the early stages, if it occurs.
Many menopausal women also experience changes in their breasts. This is because of the sudden drop in oestrogen that occurs during the menopause. This causes changes in the size, appearance and texture of your breasts, so it’s important you check them regularly, as a breast cancer diagnosis is most common in women over the age of 50
While the menopause itself isn’t linked to breast cancer, some worry that menopause treatments such as Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT), might increase their risk of developing it.
For the vast majority of women, the benefits of taking HRT outweigh any risks. These risks depend on the type of HRT we choose to take, as well as other factors including our age, lifestyle and general health.
No studies have shown that any type of HRT increases the risk of a woman’s death from breast cancer. For those taking estrogen-only HRT, there is actually a small reduction in breast cancer risk. Read more about breast cancer and HRT in our in-depth feature here.
Ideally, you should try to check your breasts at least once a month, regardless of your age. To find out how to check your breasts for signs of breast cancer, take a look at our guide below.
How to check your breasts
Get familiar with your breasts
It may feel strange at first, but knowing the shape, size and general feel of your breasts can go a long way in helping you figure out if something is amiss.
- Try to check your breasts in a bathroom or somewhere with a mirror. This will give you a full view of your chest area.
- Check each breast one at a time.
- Use your first few finger pads and keep your fingers flat and together as you press down. This will help you spot any lumps or change in texture.
- Feel around the breast in a circular motion.
- Feel under your arm, up to your collarbone and around your nipple area.
Check size and shape
During the menopause, our breasts can decrease in size, as the tissue shrinks. For pre-menopause and peri-menopausal women, your breasts will often change in size and shape throughout the month because of hormone fluctuations.
The hormonal changes that impact women during the menopause can also cause small non-cancerous cysts to develop in the breast tissue.
These often go away on their own, but you should get them checked if you notice one, regardless of whether you think it might be a cyst.
In fact, if you notice any new lump, swelling, thickening or a bumpy area in one breast or armpit that was not there before, then you should make an appointment with your GP.
Check for nipple changes
Take note of any change in nipple position or general look and feel, such as:
- Your nipple being pulled in or pointing differently
- Discharge or bleeding from the nipple
- A rash or crusting around the nipple area
- A moist, red area around their nipple
Lookout for discomfort or pain
Pain isn’t the most common of breast cancer symptoms. Many women experience breast tenderness around their period and during their menopausal years. If you’re experiencing a new pain in your breast, or if the pain is persistent and doesn’t go away, then you should get in touch with your GP.
Don’t miss the key areas
Checking around your collarbone and underneath your armpit is important, as your breast tissue extends up to these areas as well. Holding your arm up straight can sometimes allow you better access to these areas.
What to do if you notice changes
Changes in your breasts don’t always mean you have breast cancer. But, it’s important to always rule it out. This is especially true if you have a history of cancer in your family or if you’ve missed a regular screening or check-up.
“If you notice any of the above changes, or anything unusual, make an appointment with your GP as soon as possible,” says Margaret.
After an examination, your GP will then refer you to a specialist breast cancer unit if they are concerned that you might have breast cancer. For more advice on checking your breasts and breast cancer, visit nhs.uk.