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Breast cancer symptoms

We share important information about breast cancer symptoms, including how to check your breasts at home.

Breast cancer is the most common form of cancer in the UK. It mostly affects women over the age of 50, but can affect younger women too. One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer during their lifetime. Men can also be diagnosed with the illness, although this is less common.

Checking your breasts regularly is a worthwhile habit to look for any changes in your breasts. If you find any, you should visit your GP for an appointment and examination.

Ms Emma de Sousa, Consultant Oncoplastic and Cosmetic Breast Surgeon at Circle Health Group’s The Alexandra Hospital in Cheadle, Cheshire, says the symptoms of breast cancer can often be attributed to another condition.

“There are lots of breast symptoms, not all of which are caused by cancer.” she says. “When people visit for assessment, we go through all the possible diagnoses, including cancer.

“It is really important to be assessed thoroughly by experts in order to ensure that cancer is excluded and, if present, found as early as possible, because that gives us the best chance for eliminating it.”

There are different types of breast cancer, and the signs and symptoms of breast cancer may develop in any part of the breast. Non-invasive breast cancer is located in the ducts of the breast, which has not spread into the tissue surrounding the ducts.

Most often, this type of cancer is discovered during a mammogram; it doesn’t tend to show up as a lump in the breast. Invasive cancer, meanwhile, is the most common type of breast cancer. With this form of cancer, the cancer cells will have spread through to the lining of the ducts and into the surrounding breast tissue.

Invasive (and pre-invasive) lobular breast cancer, inflammatory breast cancer, and Paget’s disease of the breast are types of breast cancer too.

People cope with a breast cancer diagnosis differently, with treatment varying widely too. Friends and family can be a great support network, whether you have recently been diagnosed, or are attending a GP appointment because you are experiencing symptoms.

It’s important to make time for yourself and find out more about the condition if you have been diagnosed with breast cancer. Talking to others in the same situation and making time to rest and not overexert yourself are vital too. “Breast cancer treatments are always being refined and updated,” says Ms Emma de Sousa.

“The main treatments are surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and anti-hormone treatments. We individualise the care for each specific patient. We use plastic and cosmetic surgery techniques to give the best breast shape while removing a cancer, and use the latest research developments in our medical treatments.”

“The long-term outcome for people who are diagnosed with breast cancer is excellent, with 85 out of every 100 women (around 85%) surviving their cancer for five years or more after diagnosis."

What can cause breast cancer?

While the exact causes of breast cancer in women are not fully understood, certain factors may increase your risk of the illness.

These include your age, with your risk increasing as you get older; a family history of the illness; a previous breast cancer diagnosis and occasionally a previous benign (non-cancerous) lump.

You may also be more at risk of getting breast cancer if you are tall, overweight or obese, or if you drink alcohol.

If you have breast cancer, you may have one of several symptoms – or multiple symptoms – with the first, noticeable sign being a lump (or area of thickened breast tissue). While most lumps found in the breast are not cancerous, you should visit your doctor anyway to get them checked out.

Other symptoms which may prompt you to visit your GP include a change in the size or shape of one or both of your breasts, discharge from your nipples (this could be blood-streaked) or a swelling or lump in your armpits.

You could also see some dimpling of the skin of your breasts, a rash on or around your nipple, or a change in appearance of the nipple (your nipple becoming ‘sunken’ into your breast, for instance). If you spot any of the above symptoms, it’s vital that you don’t put off making an appointment with your GP for fear of feeling embarrassed.

At your appointment, your GP may need to examine your breasts. Remember: your doctor sees patients with symptoms like yours regularly; it may seem daunting to be examined, but your doctor will likely examine people on a day-to-day basis and will not be phased by it.

If you feel a lump in your breast (or any other symptoms of breast cancer) it’s important to ring your GP, in the first instance, to make an appointment to be checked over. 

When you visit your GP to discuss possible symptoms of breast cancer, they will want to look at your breasts. They will also ask you about your symptoms, including when they started and how they are impacting your day-to-day life.

Following an examination, your GP may refer you to a specialist breast cancer clinic in the NHS – or you may pursue private treatment, here at Circle Health Group.

Following your GP appointment, further tests will most likely be needed, which may include:

  • Breast screening (mammography). This involves X-ray images being taken of the breast and is the most common way of finding a change in your breast tissue – and at an early stage. Women who are between 50 and 70 years of age will be invited for breast screening every three years, due to the risk of breast cancer increasing with age.
  • A biopsy (where a small sample of breast tissue is taken to later be examined under a microscope.

Often, if cancer is detected at an early stage, it can be treated – via a combination of surgery, chemotherapy or radiotherapy – before it spreads to other parts of the body. In most people with breast cancer, surgery is the first type of treatment you will undergo.

This is followed by chemotherapy or radiotherapy. Some patients will undergo hormone or targeted treatment too, and your treatment will be dependent on the type of breast cancer you have.

A small proportion of women may have metastatic breast cancer, which is discovered after it has spread to other parts of the body.

Metastatic breast cancer is not curable. Instead, the aim of treatment is to relieve symptoms and slow progression in the patient.

Want to find out more about the different ways to pay for your breast cancer consultation or any subsequent treatment you may need at Circle Health Group?

Some patients choose to pay for themselves, while others will have medical insurance in place. Those who opt to pay for their treatment can spread the cost over a 12-month period.

Find out more about the different ways to pay for breast cancer treatment.

There are several conditions related to breast cancer. These include:

  • Invasive breast cancer
  • Invasive lobular breast cancer
  • Triple negative breast cancer
  • Inflammatory breast cancer
  • Angiosarcoma of the breast
  • Male breast cancer
  • Ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS)
  • Lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS)
  • Paget’s disease of the breast.

Following an appointment and thorough examination of your breasts, your GP or oncologist may be able to give you more information on the type of breast cancer – if any – you may be experiencing. Treatment will differ, depending on the form of breast cancer you might be experiencing.

Have a query about breast cancer? You may find the answer in our frequently asked questions guide below.

Can breast cancer have no symptoms?

Yes, in some cases, people who have breast cancer may have no symptoms at all. From lumps, to swelling and skin changes – to no obvious symptoms – breast cancer symptoms can vary widely from patient to patient.

Breast cancer may be picked up at a routine mammogram appointment in women between the ages of 50 and 70.

If you notice any changes at all to your breasts, however insignificant they may seem to you (and whatever your age), it’s important to get checked out by your doctor as soon as possible.

Can fatigue be a symptom of breast cancer?

Breast cancer can affect the levels of hormones in your body, which may cause fatigue.

If you have advanced breast cancer, you are more likely to experience this symptom; those in the early stages of a cancer diagnosis may not notice a difference to their energy levels. Fatigue on its own, though, doesn’t always point to breast cancer and could instead be due to another condition, or as a result of your lifestyle.

Can men get breast cancer symptoms?

Yes. A pain-free lump in the breast may be one of the first signs of breast cancer in men.

Although the condition rarely affects men, it is important to see your GP if you are experiencing this symptom. Likewise, if your nipple is oozing discharge (which could also be blood-stained), or your nipple is pulled into the breast (known as nipple retraction), you should also see your GP.

How does breast cancer start?

Beginning in the ducts or lobules of the breasts, most breast cancers may result in an increase in breast size over a short period of time. Your breasts may feel different when you touch them, too – either tender, hard, or even warm.

Your nipples may flake or peel, too – or you may feel a lump under the skin. Thickening of the breast tissue is another sign to look out for.

What are the symptoms of advanced breast cancer?

In patients with advanced breast cancer, symptoms may include a breast lump that can be seen or felt, nipple discharge, skin changes (including a rash or dimpling of the skin), fatigue, breast pain or discomfort, unexplained weight loss and/or loss of appetite.

Do breast cancer symptoms appear on just one breast?

Breast cancer symptoms usually appear on just one breast, yes. That said, while it’s more rare, some people do notice symptoms in both of their breasts.

Do you get breast pain with breast cancer?

No, breast pain is not a typical symptom of early-stage breast cancer. That said, breast pain should not be ignored; visit your GP to discuss this symptom and any others you may be experiencing.