Symptoms and diagnosis of breast cancer

Find out about breast cancer screening, how to check your breasts and more information about how breast cancer is identified.

Symptoms of breast cancer

The symptoms of breast cancer may include any of the following:

  • A change in size or shape – it may be that one breast has become larger
  • Changes in the nipple – in direction or shape, pulled in or flattened nipple
  • Changes on or around the nipple – rash, flaky or crusted skin
  • Changes in the skin – dimpling, puckering or redness
  • 'Orange peel’ appearance of the skin caused by unusually enlarged pores
  • Swelling in your armpit or around your collarbone
  • A  lump, any size, or thickening in your breast
  • Constant pain in one part of your breast or armpit 

What to do if you find something

If you do notice any change in your breasts, see your doctor as soon as possible. Remember that most breast changes are not cancer and are harmless. When your doctor 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 doctor 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.

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 Cancer Nurseline on freefone 1800 200 700 and speak to one of our cancer nurses for confidential advice, support and information. 

How to check your breasts 

It is important that every woman is breast aware. This means knowing what is normal for you so that if any unusual change occurs, you will recognise it. 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 from time to time.
Breast changes to be aware of
  • a change in size or shape – it may be that one breast has become larger
  • changes in the nipple – in direction or shape, pulled in or flattened nipple
  • changes on or around the nipple – rash, flaky or crusted skin
  • changes in the skin – dimpling, puckering or redness
  • 'orange peel’ appearance of the skin caused by unusually enlarged pores
  • swelling in your armpit or around your collarbone
  • a lump, any size, or thickening in your breast
  • constant pain in one part of your breast or armpit

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.
The 5 point breast awareness code: 
Know what is normal for you
Know what changes to look for
Look and feel your breasts
Discuss any changes with your GP without delay
Attend routine breast screening if you are aged between 50 and 64.
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.


Triple assessment

Your doctor will refer you to a specialist breast clinic in a hospital 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 2600 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 22 men develop breast cancer in Ireland each year.

Questions to ask your doctor

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

If your doctor 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 doctor 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?


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?

Call our Cancer Nurseline

Freephone 1800 200 700 and speak to one of our cancer nurses forconfidential advice, support and information. 

It's open Monday-Thursday from 9am to 6pm and Friday from 9am to 5pm

Date Last Reviewed: 
Tuesday, October 6, 2015
Date Last Revised: 
Tuesday, October 6, 2015