This page tells you about the symptoms of breast cancer.
The first symptom of breast cancer for many women is a lump in their breast. However, many women have breast lumps and nine out of ten are benign. That means they are not cancers.
Most benign breast lumps are:
- Areas of normal lumpiness in the breast that are more obvious just before a period
- Cysts – sacs of fluid in the breast tissue, which are quite common
- Fibro adenoma – a collection of fibrous glandular tissue (these are common in younger women, aged under 30)
How to check your breasts
Watch this short video to learn how to check your breasts:
What to look and feel for
Changes that could be due to a breast cancer are:
- If one of your breasts has gotten larger or lower or changes shape
- If any veins stand out more than usual for you
- Puckering, dimpling or redness of the skin
- Changes in the nipple such as redness, crusting, or blood stained discharge
- Changes in the shape of the nipple, particularly if it turns in or sinks into the breast or direction
- Thickening of breast tissue
- Bumpy areas that seem different from other breast tissue
- A swelling or lump in your armpit or along your collarbone
It is important that you check your breasts each month to look and feel for these changes. Click here to visit our Finding Breast Cancer Early page.
If you notice one or more of these signs, don’t panic as it does not necessarily mean that you have breast cancer. These symptoms can be caused by other medical conditions. However, all of the above symptoms should be looked at by your GP. It most likely means you have a benign (non-cancerous) condition that can be easily be diagnosed by your GP. Your GP will reassure you but may need to refer you for further assessment and investigations as appropriate.
Seeing your doctor early also means you give yourself the best chance of successful treatment and cure if it is cancer.
What to do if you find something
If you notice something has changed with one of your breasts that does not seem right to you, see your GP straight away. Remember, the majority of breast changes are not cancerous but they still need to be checked immediately to be sure.
Your GP will examine your breasts and, if necessary, send you to specialist breast cancer clinic for further tests.
Mammogram and ultrasound
At the clinic, you may have a test such as a mammogram. This produces an X-ray of the breasts. You may also need an ultrasound scan. Ultrasound uses high-frequency sound waves to produce an image of the soft tissue and structures inside your breasts. The image produced will show any lumps or abnormalities that are present in your breasts. Your doctor may also suggest a breast ultrasound if they need to know whether a lump in your breast is solid or contains liquid.
If you are under 35, your doctor may suggest that you have a breast ultrasound scan only. Younger women have denser breasts, which means a mammogram is not as effective at detecting cancer.
A biopsy involves removing some cells from the area of the breast that is causing concern so that they can be checked under a microscope. The cells can be removed using a needle or by doing surgery to take out part or all of the tumor. The type of biopsy depends on the size and location of the lump or suspicious area.
Needle aspiration may be used to test a sample of your breast cells for cancer or to drain a benign cyst (a small fluid-filled lump). Your doctor will use a small needle to extract a sample of cells, without removing any tissue.
Needle biopsy is the most common type of biopsy. A sample of tissue is taken from a lump in your breast using a large needle. You will have a local anaesthetic, which means that you will be awake but your breast will be numb. Your doctor may suggest that you have a guided needle biopsy (usually this is guided by ultrasound or X-ray but sometimes MRI is used) to obtain a more precise and reliable biopsy of the suspicious area. This will allow for a more adequate diagnosis of cancer and may also be able to distinguish it from any non-invasive change, in particular ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS).
Many women experience breast pain and worry that it is a sign of breast cancer. However, breast pain is not generally a symptom of breast cancer and breast pain does not increase your risk of developing breast cancer. Many healthy women find that their breasts feel lumpy and tender before their period. This is thought to be linked to changes in hormone levels linked to the menstrual cycle. Some women find benign (non-cancerous) lumps which are painful. Many women get pain in their breasts for a while, which goes after a time.
If you are concerned about pain in your breast, or notice other changes in your breasts such as lumps, puckering, bleeding or discharge from the nipple or changes in the shape or size of your breasts or nipple, see your GP.
Why it’s important to be breast aware
Remember, the earlier breast cancer is picked up, the easier it is to treat it and the more likely the treatment is to be successful. So it is important that you go to your GP as soon as possible if you notice worrying symptoms.
There is information about breast awareness, how to check your breasts (self-examination), and what to look for, on our page about finding breast cancer early. You can also download a free infographic about risks, prevention and how to check your breasts here.
If you have a question about breast cancer, you can contact one of our nurses using our free and confidential Ask the Nurse Service here.