Answers to common questions about breast cancer.

Signs and symptoms questions

I’ve found a lump/unusual change what should I do?

If you have found any unusual changes to your breasts then you should check them out with your doctor as soon as possible. In many cases they turn out not to be cancerous, so stay calm – remain in control.

Are all lumps cancer?

No – most breast lumps are not cancer. There are a number of benign, or non-cancerous, breast diseases. A non-cancerous breast lump may be a cyst, which contains fluid, or a fibroadenoma, which is an overgrowth of fibrous tissue. Both of these can be treated easily if needed.

The key thing is to go and see your doctor straight away if you notice a lump, so you can find out whether it is or isn’t cancer.

Having it checked out as soon as possible could save you needless worry in the long run. And if the lump is cancerous, you’ll have given yourself the best possible chance of successful treatment – the earlier breast cancer is found, the better the chance of beating it.

There are other important signs to look out for as well as lumps. See our signs and symptoms page for more information.

How often should I check my breasts and what am I looking for?

Being breast aware means knowing what your breasts look and feel like normally, being on the lookout for any unusual changes and getting them checked out by your doctor. No one knows your body better than you and everyone will have their own way of touching and looking for changes – there’s no special technique and you don’t need any training. It’s good to get into the habit of doing this regularly. For more information see our signs and symptoms page.

Is Breast Cancer Now’s Touch Look Check campaign suitable for teens?

We recommend that our Touch Look Check (TLC) guide is used by all women aged 18 and over. It is very unusual for girls in their teens or early twenties to develop breast cancer. In addition, teenagers’ breasts change over time. Girls may feel lumps and bumps, but it is uncommon for them to be cancerous. Our TLC guide was not developed with teenagers in mind; however, we can recommend a guide produced by Breast Cancer Care called Breast Mates which is designed especially for younger women.

Risk and genetic factors questions

How can I reduce my risk of breast cancer?

Changing your lifestyle can reduce your overall risk of developing breast cancer. You can choose to change factors such as your weight, how much alcohol you drink, the amount of physical activity you do or whether or not to take the contraceptive pill or hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and for how long.

The decision about whether to make any changes can be difficult. The best choice for you depends on your personal situation and may change over time. Every choice involves thinking through the helpful effects as well as the possible unwanted effects.

You should talk about any changes you decide to make with your doctor and decide together which pros and cons are most important to you. Find out more about what can cause breast cancer.

My mother/sister/grandmother has had breast cancer. Does this mean I will get it too?

It is important to remember that of all the women who develop breast cancer, only about one in five has a significant family history of the disease and about one in 20 has inherited a gene fault linked to breast cancer.

People who have inherited faults in known breast cancer genes – such as BRCA1 or BRCA2 – have an increased risk of developing breast cancer. People with a family history of breast cancer tend to have an unusually high number of close relatives (parents, siblings or children) on one side of the family and/or relatives who developed breast cancer at a young age.

If you are concerned about any cancers in your family, you should see your doctor.

Regardless of your family history, it’s important for all women to be breast aware. For information, visit our signs and symptoms page.

Breast cancer runs in my family and so I would like to be tested to see if I am at risk. How can I get this type of testing done?

If you are concerned about your family history you should visit your doctor to discuss these concerns. Your doctor will be able to let you know what your family history means for you and whether you may benefit from genetic testing. Genetic testing is currently only offered to people who have a strong family history of breast cancer. 

It is important to remember that only around one in 20 of all breast cancers is due to inherited faults in known breast cancer genes. Breast cancer is thought to be caused by a combination of our genes, lifestyle and environment.

If you are interested in finding out about things that can increase or decrease your risk of developing breast cancer, please see our pages on what can cause breast cancer.

Screening questions

What is breast screening?

Breast screening, also known as a mammogram, is a special X-ray of the breast. It’s free on the NHS for women aged 50 and over. Women over 70 are not invited for screening, but they are still eligible for screening and can make their own appointment at their local screening unit or by asking their GP to refer them. Screening usually takes place at a nearby health centre, hospital or mobile screening unit.

Can I get breast screening before I am 50?

As you get older your risk of breast cancer increases – more than four out five breast cancers in the UK occur in women over 50. Breast screening is available on the NHS to all women over the age of 50. As part of a research trial, women aged 47 to 50 in some areas of England are being invited for breast screening too. Women over 70 are not invited for screening. They are still eligible for screening and can make their own appointment at their local screening unit or by asking their GP to refer them. For more information see our page on NHS breast screening.

If you have a confirmed family history of breast cancer that means you may be at higher risk of developing the disease, you may be entitled to screening before the age of 50. This is determined at a specialist genetics clinic.

Whether or not you are attending breast screening, it is important to check your breasts regularly. Overall, most breast cancers are detected by women who report unusual changes to their doctor, so it’s important to make regular checks. For information, visit our signs and symptoms page.

I have been referred to a hospital breast unit for tests. Does this mean I have cancer?

If your doctor or screening service finds anything that could be unusual and needs further tests, they will refer you to a breast clinic. Most changes turn out not to be breast cancer. More information about diagnosis can be found in our About Breast Cancer section.

How can I rearrange my breast screening (mammogram) appointment?

Breast screening is organised by the NHS. If the appointment you are offered for screening doesn’t suit you, just contact your local screening service. Information on how to re-arrange your appointment and contact details will be on your invitation letter. If you have lost this, our Breast Screening Facts website contains useful links.

Information last reviewed on: 10 January 2017

Next review due: 10 January 2020

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