How to check for breast cancer symptoms and detect the condition early

·7 min read
Checking breast cancer. (Getty Images)
Don't be afraid to check for breast cancer symptoms. (Getty Images)

This Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and every month, is a great time to start checking for symptoms to increase your chances of detecting the condition early.

There are nearly 56,000 new cases of breast cancer each year, according to Cancer Research UK. While this might seem daunting, there is also a 76% survival rate, with a good chance of recovery if it's diagnosed early enough.

Many celebrities have helped to raise awareness about the condition over the years and encourage others to check their breasts, as something we should do for our benefit, rather than fear.

Read more: UK's four most common cancer types – the signs and symptoms to be aware of

A BAFTA Tribute:
Deidre Sanders, aka 'Dear Deidre', recently shared she has been diagnosed with breast cancer. (Getty Images)

Deidre Sanders, for example, shared last month that she has been diagnosed with high grade ductal carcinoma in situ after missing a routine mammogram, and that she was due to have treatment.

The 77-year-old explained how eventually going to see her doctor quickly led her to being referred for a mammogram and ultrasound scan through the NHS.

"I tend to have tense shoulders but I realised the ache seemed to be spreading into my right breast. I must have let at least a month pass while I ­wondered, 'Is it anything to worry about? Is it just muscular? I am 77, after all, is it just the aches and pains of getting older?'," she told The Sun.

"I finally got round to calling our GP practice a ­fortnight before I was due to go on holiday. She saw me in person that afternoon, thought she could feel a difference in the right breast and put me on the NHS two-week cancer pathway."

Read more: The different types of breast cancers as 'Dear Deidre' Sanders shares diagnosis

Sarah Beeny, recently diagnosed with breast cancer. (Getty Images)
Sarah Beeny's breast cancer diagnosis helped to encourage others to check for breast cancer symptoms. (Getty Images)

All women who are 50-70 years-old are invited to breast cancer screening every three years (those over 70 can also arrange an appointment through their GP or local screening unit), to help boost early detection.

The presenter, 50, best known for TV shows including Property Ladder, Help! My House Is Falling Down, and Sarah Beeny’s New Life in the Country, discovered that she had the same disease her mother died from when she was a child.

Beeny admitted in an interview with The Telegraph she had "a little bit of a breakdown" in the consultation room.

She recalled of her diagnosis, "The nurse was so sweet and they were really nice to me but I thought, 'You don't understand. I have waited 40 years to hear those words.' I knew I was going to hear them one day."

All women who are 50-70 years old are invited to breast cancer screening every three years (those over 70 can also arrange an appointment through their GP or local screening unit), to help boost early detection.

She said she began chemotherapy last week and has decided to have a mastectomy and radiotherapy in the New Year.

The much-loved broadcaster cut off her hair at the weekend with the help of her husband Graham Swift, and sons, Billy, 18, Charlie, 16, Rafferty, 14, and Laurie, 12.

Despite her diagnosis, she said at the time she will continue to work and is focused on a new Channel 4 series and book she has planned for later in the year.

She said she feels "lucky" because she lives in a family "where we all talk" and plans to draw on her "inner strength" throughout treatment.

Read more: Sarah Beeny, Olivia Newton-John and celebs who have shared their breast cancer story

If you are worried about breast cancer, there are many things you can do, including regular checks, to give you the best chances of early diagnosis.

Breast cancer symptoms

Breast cancer, which is the most common type of cancer in the UK, usually presents itself in more obvious ways.

According to charity Coppafeel!, symptoms include:

  • Changes in skin texture (including puckering and dimpling)

  • Swelling of the armpit and around the collarbone

  • Lumps and thickening around the breast

  • Constant or unusual pain in the breast or armpit

  • Nipple discharge

  • A sudden or unusual change in size or shape

  • Nipple inversion or nipples that change direction

  • A rash or crusting of the nipple or surrounding areas

Breast cancer self-check. (Getty Images)
Make sure you look and feel when checking for breast cancer symptoms. (Getty Images)

Breast cancer early detection

All women who are 50-70 years old are invited to breast cancer screenings every three years (those over 70 can also arrange an appointment through their GP or local screening unit), to help boost early detection.

But Coppafeel! also recommends checking your breasts as part of your monthly routine so you notice any changes quickly.

While the condition usually affects older people, the charity advises you are never too young to start checking.

All genders also have breast tissue, which develops at a young age. While it is more common in women, it can affect anyone.

“By checking on a regular basis, you will also build confidence of knowing what is normal for you each month. Everyone has to start somewhere, so don’t worry if you’re not feeling confident straight away," the website states.

It might be a good idea to check at different times each month so you can discover how your boobs change because of hormonal fluctuations.

With about one in eight women diagnosed with the condition during their lifetime, the NHS states that there's a good chance of recovery if detected at an early stage.

Read more: Cervical Screening Awareness Week: 12 things people wish they knew about smear tests

Watch: Know your body: How to check for signs and symptoms of breast cancer

How to check your breasts

The NHS recommends looking at your breasts and feeling each breast and armpit, up to your collarbone. This might be easier to do in the bath or shower, using the soapy water to make the process a little easier.

Alternatively, you could look in the mirror, swapping between having your arms by your side and having them raised.

Before checking, it's important to remember that everyone's breasts are different, whether you might be on your period (which can make them tender and lumpy), post-menopause (which can make them feel softer) or have one larger than the other.

Read more: Testicular Cancer Awareness Month: 'Biggest balls in UK' grace billboard

Woman checking breasts. (Getty Images)
Use a mirror to help when checking your breasts. (Getty Images)

The NHS Breast Screening Programme has produced a five-point plan, making it easier than ever to know what you’re looking out for.

The five simple points are:

  • Know what's normal for you

  • Look at your breasts and feel them

  • Know what changes to look for

  • Report any changes without delay

  • Attend your routine screening if you're 50 or over

When to get help for breast cancer symptoms

If you do feel something, you don't necessarily need to be alarmed, as breast changes can happen for any reason, with most lumps not being cancerous.

However, if you experience unusual breast changes and you're not sure of the cause, it's still important to book an appointment with your GP as soon as possible to rule out breast cancer. And if it is detected, you'll benefit from early diagnosis and treatment can be planned as quickly as possible.

To help with easily adding self-checks into your routine, make the most of Coppafeel!'s regular boob check reminder. For more information on the condition in general, see the NHS's website page on breast cancer.