Symptoms and diagnosis of breast cancer

Find out how breast cancer is diagnosed, from screening, questions to ask your GP and triple assessments.

Breast cancer screening

Breast screening involves a mammogram x-ray of the breasts, which can detect early signs of cancer before it can be seen or felt. Screening has been proven to reduce the number of deaths from breast cancer, as the disease is very treatable if detected early. BreastCheck, the National Breast Screening Programme, offers free mammograms to women aged 50-64. The programme invites eligible women, on an area by area basis, for free screening every two years. You can register for BreastCheck by calling freephone 1800 45 45 55.

Breast Pain

Our breast pain factsheet (pdf 434 KB) gives information on breast pain in women. It explains the different types and causes of breast pain and how it can be diagnosed and treated. We hope it answers some questions and concerns you may have. Remember that breast pain alone is rarely a symptom of breast cancer. For more information, call the National Cancer Helpline on freefone 1800 200 700 and speak to a specialist nurse in confidence.

What to do if you find something

If you do notice any change in your breasts, see your GP as soon as possible. Remember that most breast changes are not cancer and are harmless. When your GP examines your breasts she or he may be able to reassure you that there is nothing to worry about. If the change could be connected with your hormones, your GP may ask you to come back at a different stage in your menstrual cycle. Alternatively, you may be sent to a breast clinic for a more detailed examination. Don’t worry that you may be making an unnecessary fuss and remember that nine out of ten breast lumps are harmless.

Triple assessment

Your GP will refer you to a specialist breast clinic in a Hospital (please see the specialist breast units for the list in Ireland) if he has any concern about your symptoms. For example if you have a lump in your breast.  At the Hospital, you may have triple assessment. This involves doing some tests to help diagnose your breast complaint. Triple assessment is the name for this; it uses three ways used to assess your breasts.

It starts with the Doctor taking a medical history or list of any health problems you have had in the past and then examining your breasts and underarms. Next you may be sent on to the X-ray department for the next step which may be a mammogram (x-ray of the breast) or an Ultrasound scan or both and finally a biopsy which may be a Fine needle test or core biopsy. If you do not have a lump you may not need full triple assessment.

Did you know?

  • Early diagnosis is a key to surviving breast cancer.
  • More than 1,700 new cases of breast cancer are diagnosed in Ireland each year.
  • Irish women have a 1 in 12 chance of developing breast cancer in their lifetime.
  • 74% of Irish women with breast cancer discovered the lump themselves.
  • Only about five to ten per cent of breast cancers are believed to have a family link.
  • The risk of developing breast cancer increases with age. Approximately 80%of breast cancers occur in women over 50 years.
  • Around 14 men develop breast cancer in Ireland each year.

Questions to Ask your Doctor

The best questions to ask your GP if you have noticed a change:

If your GP refers you for investigation or tests, ask

  • Why are you referring me for investigation?
  • Can I be referred to a specialist breast clinic?
  • How quickly will I be seen?
  • Is my referral urgent or non-urgent?
  • Which tests will I need (ultrasound, mammogram, biopsy) and why? Ask about Triple Assessment.

If your GP does not refer you for tests, ask

  • Can you explain why you’ve decided not to refer me to a breast specialist?
  • How can you be sure I don’t have breast cancer?

For more information see the National Breast Cancer GP referral guidelines (pdf 180.47KB).

Diagnosis questions

If you are diagnosed with breast cancer, ask your specialist doctor or breast care nurse, ask

  • What is the type and extent of the breast cancer?
  • What’s my prognosis?
  • What are my treatment options and how soon can they start?
  • Should I continue taking HRT or the Pill?
  • Are there any changes I should make to make to my lifestyle (diet, exercise, smoking)?
  • Will I be able to carry on working?
  • Are my female relatives at a higher than average breast cancer risk?
  • Can I have tests to find out if the cancer has spread to other parts of my body?
  • Are there any clinical trials that I might be able to participate in?
  • What services does this hospital provide to help me through this?
  • Who can I telephone later if I’m worried about diagnosis and treatment?

More about diagnosis

You may be eligible for funding for some of the transport costs if you are attending the hospital for tests for breast cancer. For more information please see our section on Travel2Care programme

Call our National Cancer Helpline

Freephone 1800 200 700 to talk to a specialist cancer nurse
It's open Monday-Thursday from 9am to 7pm and Friday from 9am to 5pm

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