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What are the signs and symptoms of breast cancer?



In the UK, breast cancer is the most common type of cancer, with 1 in 8 women being diagnosed during their lifetime. Most women who are diagnosed with breast cancer are over the age of 50, but younger women can also develop breast cancer. If detected early, there is a good chance of recovery. This is why it's so important to know how your breasts look and feel normally. It sounds obvious but it's something that in reality not many women pay attention to. The most recognised symptom of breast cancer is a lump or mass formation in the breast tissue. However, different types of breast cancer can be identified by different symptoms not everyone is aware of. In this article, we will cover the range of symptoms or signs of breast cancer, how to check and identify those signs and what you should do next if you spot one.

Key breast cancer signs or symptoms to be aware of


There are a wide range of symptoms or signs to look out for that could indicate that you may have breast cancer. On occasion, breast cancer may not cause any symptoms at all, but a doctor will identify a mass on a mammogram. This is just one of the reasons why the NHS offer screenings for breast cancer every three years for women aged 50 and over, to make sure that we have the best chance at catching the disease as early as possible. It is important to be aware that all of the below symptoms can also have a non-cancerous underlying cause, so although you should be checking for these symptoms, they may not mean that you have cancer. This is why we recommend that if you are suffering from any of the below symptoms that you visit your doctor in case tests are necessary to check for both cancerous and non-cancerous health issues.

An unusual lump in your breast

If you have noticed a lump, or swelling in your breast, upper chest area or armpit, then this may be a sign of breast cancer. This is the most common symptom. You should not be immediately alarmed if you find a lump in your breast, as most breast lumps found are not cancer. They are most often fluid-filled lumps (cysts) or a lump consisting of fibrous and glandular tissue. However, it is essential that you visit a doctor to have it checked out, as if it is cancerous, the sooner it is treated, the better chances of success.  Check your breasts for any kind of unusual lumps, whether they're painless, painful, soft, round or with edges. A painful, hard mass that has uneven edges is more likely to be cancerous, but breast cancers can also be soft, tender and rounded masses as well. If you feel an unusual lump in your breast, even if you cannot see it, it is imperative that you visit the doctor for a check-up as soon as possible.

Skin dimpling around the breast area

The easiest way to describe skin dimpling is when the skin looks a bit like orange peel. The skin becomes thick and pitted, with a texture and appearance like that of the outside of an orange. This symptom can sometimes be a sign of inflammatory breast cancer, which is quite an aggressive type of cancer. The cancer cells cause a build-up of lymph fluid in the breasts which can lead to swelling, dimpling or skin that looks unusual. This leads us to the next sign, which can come hand-in-hand with this symptom. 

Any changes to the skin's texture

On occasion, breast cancer can cause inflammation in skin cells which can cause changes in skin texture. If you notice skin texture changes around the breast area, it is important to see your GP as soon as possible. Examples of skin texture changes include scaly skin around the nipple and areola (as if the skin is sunburned or very dry) and the skin thickening at any part of the breast as mentioned above. The changes can cause itchiness and be an indicator of a rare form of breast cancer. It is more likely to be symptomatic of benign skin conditions such as dermatitis or eczema, but it is still important to have these symptoms checked out just in case.

Redness or swelling of the breast

Breast cancer can also cause discolouration, redness and swelling. The breast can even appear slightly bruised-looking. Swelling can appear to either an area of the breast or the entire breast itself, and there may not be a distinctive lump, but the breast may be much larger than the other. It is important to note that it is normal to have breasts that are slightly different sizes, but this swelling occurs and would change the usual breast size.

Nipple discharge

You may notice discharge coming from your nipple, which can be thin, thick, and a range of different colours. It is normal for women who are breastfeeding to have milky discharge coming from the nipples, but under any other circumstances, it is important to see a doctor. Most of the time it might be the symptom of a non-cancerous condition, but it is still essential to be checked out by a doctor. Other than breast cancer, this symptom could be an indicator of a breast infection, certain conditions such as thyroid disease, or even a side effect of birth control pills or certain medications.

Changes to your lymph nodes

Your lymph nodes are small, rounded collections of immune system tissue that filter fluid and capture harmful cells. Your lymph nodes are responsible for gathering all harmful cells including bacteria, viruses and even cancer cells. If cancer cells have left the breast, they are most likely then collected in the lymph nodes that reside in the underarm region of the body. This would then lead to swelling in that area. If you notice swelling in your underarms or around your collarbone area, you should visit your doctor to have it checked out. As with the other symptoms, this doesn't necessarily mean that you have cancer, but it is definitely worth a check-up.

Retraction or inversion of the nipple

In addition to discharge, the nipple can also invert or reversing inward, due to cell changes happening behind the nipple. It may look different in size, or retract into the breast completely. Sometimes our nipples can change during ovulation or during the menstrual cycle, which is completely normal. If you notice any abnormal changes, you should see a doctor as soon as possible.

Breast or nipple pain

Although breast cancer is often painless, it can cause changes in skin cells that can lead to feelings of pain, tenderness and discomfort in the breast. The pain can also feel like a burning sensation. Although during our menstrual cycles many women often experience tender breasts, it is worth going to see your GP if you are experiencing any unusual or prolonged pain.

Be breast aware

It's important to get to know what is normal for you so that you are able to detect any changes as soon as possible, as abnormalities could be a sign of something wrong, even if it isn't breast cancer. There are a number of very useful resources on breast cancer awareness including: Breast Cancer Now Cancer Research UK Macmillan Cancer Support

But don't panic


You shouldn't panic if you notice any changes to your breasts. Ageing, changing hormone levels and various other factors could cause changes in your breasts throughout your lifetime. However, it is definitely worth being proactive about your health, by visiting a doctor if you feel that there may be something wrong. Your doctor will be able to check your symptoms, examine the affected area, and recommend further investigation if required.

What's next

If you notice one or more of these symptoms and take the trip to see a doctor, they might suggest you go for a mammogram, ultrasound, other tests involving image taking or blood tests to rule out infection or check for the cause. Again, this does not necessarily mean you have breast cancer, so there is no need to worry at this point.

During the GP appointment

During the appointment, the GP will examine your breasts for the symptoms or signs that you have mentioned. As mentioned above if further testing is required, your GP will be able to refer you to the right place. They might also decide that no further investigation is needed, or that they would like you to come back for another appointment after a short time, to see if there are any changes in your symptoms. If you don't feel comfortable seeing a male GP, you will be able to request a female GP. You can also ask for a female nurse or member of staff to be present during your examination, or you can take a friend or family member along to the appointment with you. Your GP should not find this unusual procedure, as the most important thing is that you feel comfortable during your appointment.

In conclusion

While an array of conditions or illnesses may cause changes to your breasts, it may be something more serious such as breast cancer. If you feel that you may be experiencing any of the above symptoms, or are just concerned due to family history of the disease, you should see a doctor for a check-up. The more vigilant you are with your healthcare and checking your breasts, the more likely breast cancer can be picked up earlier and result in successful treatment.

Your choices

You have a lot of choice when it comes to your onward treatment upon finding that you are experiencing some worrying symptoms. You can see your NHS GP, who will be able to examine your breasts and refer you to a breast clinic if required. If you are unsure and would like a chat with someone to find out more, one of the brilliant cancer charities mentioned above are on hand to answer further questions or help you with concerns. You also have the option of booking a private GP appointment with one of our experienced, local GPs at Vaila Health. A GP of your choice will examine your breasts in a private setting and advise you as to what your next steps in treatment or examination should be. We are also able to arrange a number of blood tests to help identify the indicators of any more serious illness or breast cancer. If you would like to contact us regarding a concern about breast cancer, feel free to email us at hello@vailahealth.com and one of our GPs will answer your concerns. Alternatively, give us a call on 0333 577 5999 to arrange your appointment. The GP appointment with us will cost £80, and there may be an additional cost for any blood tests or referrals. These will be discussed with you during your consultation, and if you require these tests you may have them that same day or come back another time for your tests. Is there anything else you would like to know about, or something you think we've missed? Let us know! Take care Hannah  Vaila Health St Andrews | Perth | Dundee 0333 577 5999 | hello@vailahealth.com

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