How to check your breasts

white female nurse gives black female patient breast self-exam lesson

It is important that every woman is breast aware. This means knowing what is normal for you, so that you can spot any changes.

The sooner you notice a change the better, because if cancer is found early, treatment is more likely to be successful. Get into the habit of looking at and feeling your breasts every month. This will help you to notice any change if it occurs.

Changes in your breasts to be aware of

  • A lump, any size, or thickening in your breast or armpit
  • A change in size or shape – it may be that one breast has become larger
  • A change in the skin of your breast – like puckering or dimpling
  • A breast abscess (infected boil) – this may appear as a red, tender area on your breast
  • A change in your nipple, like pulled-in, sunken, or flattened nipple
  • An unusual discharge (liquid) from one or both of your nipples – the discharge may be blood-stained or watery
  • A change on or around the nipple, such as a rash, or flaky or crusted skin
  • Swelling in your armpit or around your collarbone

Techniques for checking your breasts

Look for changes by using a mirror so that you can see the breasts from different angles.

Feel for changes: An easy way of feeling your breast is with a soapy hand in the bath or shower. Some women prefer to feel for changes while lying down.

Know what is normal for you

It's important to know what is normal for you. Your breasts will go through many normal changes during your life. For example, they are affected by changes in your hormones during your menstrual cycle, pregnancy and breast-feeding and menopause.

  • Your menstrual cycle: Each month, when you are having periods, your breasts often change. They can become bigger, tender and lumpy usually before a period starts and return to normal once the period is over. Some women, however, may have tender, lumpy breasts throughout their cycle. 
  • Pregnancy and breast-feeding: The changes that occur during your menstrual cycle continue during pregnancy. While breast-feeding, your breasts may be very enlarged, firm and tender; this is normal at this time. However, you should continue to check your breasts and discuss any unusual changes with your GP. 
  • Menopause: After the menopause your breasts will feel softer and they may get bigger or smaller. If there is a change in only one breast, you should discuss this with your doctor. HRT hormone replacement therapy may cause your breasts to feel firmer and quite tender.

Questions to ask your GP if you have noticed a change in your breasts

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


  • 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?

If you're diagnosed with breast cancer


  • 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?
For more information on breast awareness
Download our leaflet Breast Cancer: What You Should Know
Breast cancer leaflet
Breast Cancer - What You Should Know leaflet
This leaflet has facts about breast cancer, ways to reduce your risk, how to check your breasts, and signs and symptoms to look out for.
breast self exam illustrations
Breast cancer: know what to look for
Know the symptoms of breast cancer, because spotting cancer early is important. An A4 poster to download, share, or print.

For more information

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1800 200 700

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