We’re getting better at opening up about difficult subjects, but many of us still find talking about them tricky, or avoid them altogether because we think they don’t affect us, especially when it comes to cancer. 

October is breast cancer awareness month; a worldwide annual campaign to highlight the importance of breast awareness, education and research.  It can be easy to feel a bit overwhelmed and even scared by information from hundreds of different sources during campaigns. The good news is that more women than ever are surviving breast cancer thanks to better awareness, screening and treatments. Around five out of six women diagnosed will be alive in five years’ time.

 So we simply wanted to ask - do you know much about breast cancer, and more importantly do you know why it’s important to check your breasts? If not, we hope this article helps.

About breast cancer

Over 55,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer in the UK each year. This makes it the most commonly diagnosed cancer in the country.  About one in eight women are diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime. It’s thought to be caused by a combination of factors including a combination of genes, lifestyle choices and the surrounding environment.  One of the biggest factors is increasing age. At least 80% of breast cancers occur in women over 50. The NHS advises that you can lower your risk by drinking less alcohol, maintaining a healthy weight and being as active as possible.  

Detecting it early

There’s a good chance of recovering from breast cancer if it’s detected early.   Women aged 50 and over are entitled to free breast screening called a mammogram. You should get your first appointment between your 50th and 53rd birthday and then every three years until you’re 70. Regardless of age, it’s important to be breast aware because most breast cancers are found by women noticing unusual changes and talking to their GP.    

You know best

Every women’s breasts are different in terms of size, shape and consistency. It’s also possible for one breast to be bigger than the other. 

No-one knows your body better than you, so get to know what your breasts look and feel like normally. It’s important to check them regularly so you can talk to your GP about any unusual changes. 

You’ll have your own way of touching and looking for changes. There’s no special technique and you don’t need any training.  Get used to how your breasts feel at different times of the month. This can change during your menstrual cycle. For example, you may have tender and lumpy breasts, especially near the armpit, around the time of your period. After the menopause, they may feel softer, less firm and not as lumpy. 

Look at your breasts and feel each breast and armpit, and up to your collarbone. You may find it easier to do this in the shower or bath, by running a soapy hand over each breast and up under each armpit. You can also look at your breasts in the mirror. Look with your arms by your side and also with them raised.       

Breast changes to look out for

  • A change in the size, outline or shape of your breast
  • A change in the look or feel of your skin, such as puckering or dimpling
  • A new lump, thickening or bumpy area in one breast or armpit that is different from the same area on the other side
  • Nipple discharge that’s not milky
  • Bleeding from your nipple
  • A moist, red area on your nipple that doesn’t heal easily
  • Any change in nipple position, such as your nipple being pulled in or pointing differently
  • A rash on or around your nipple
  • Any discomfort or pain in one breast, particularly if it’s a new pain doesn’t go away (although pain is only a symptom of breast cancer in rare cases)

Always see your GP if you’re concerned.  You’re not wasting their time.

It affects men too

Although breast cancer predominantly affects women, around 350 men are diagnosed with it in the UK every year. It develops in the small amount of breast tissue men have behind their nipples. It usually occurs in men over 60, but occasionally affects younger men.

Just like women, it’s important to know what normal feels like to you and to see your GP if you have a lump, any worrying symptoms such as discharge, or a history of breast cancer (either men or women) in your family.