26 October 2020

Almost half (47%) of women in the UK do not check their breasts regularly for potential signs of breast cancer, Breast Cancer Now has revealed.1

Alarmingly, one in 10 women have ‘never checked their breasts for new or unusual changes’, according to a YouGov survey commissioned by the charity. Meanwhile, a fifth (19%) of women check their breasts ‘once every six months or less’, while 13% do this ‘once a year or less’.

Asked what stops or prevents them from checking their breasts more regularly, almost half (46%) of women said they ‘forget’ – cause for deep concern when most cases of the disease are detected because women have spotted new or unusual changes to their breasts.

With breast cancer being the most common cancer in women in the UK,2 the charity is making an urgent plea to all women to make checking their breasts ‘a habit of a lifetime’, as early diagnosis can prevent women dying from the disease. The charity suggests that women check their breasts at least every six weeks.

Further reasons that stop or prevent women who have not had breast cancer from checking their breasts include that a fifth (21%) are ‘not confident’ about what new or unusual changes they should be looking for. This is the case for almost a fifth (17%) of women aged 45-54, which is the age when breast cancer risk increases significantly for women.3

The charity is encouraged that 87% of women who have not had breast cancer said they would visit a doctor if they noticed a new or unusual breast change to get this checked. Worryingly however, key reasons given by those who said they would not included, ‘I feel awkward or embarrassed’, ‘I don’t want to bother my GP who is busy enough due to the COVID-19 pandemic’ and ‘I’m too busy’.

Manveet Basra, Head of Public Health and Wellbeing at Breast Cancer Now, said:

“That one in 10 women have never checked their breasts really shocked me. Breast checking is quick, easy, and can help detect any breast cancer early, giving treatment the best chance of working.

“There’s no special technique – just get to know your breasts and what’s normal for you, so you can spot any new or unusual changes, and remember to check all parts of your breasts, your armpits and up to your collarbone for changes. Making this part of your routine – such as in the shower or when you apply moisturiser – can help you to do it regularly. Encourage your female friends and family to do this too; please don’t feel embarrassed talking about this simple step that could save your life!

“Many women may know that a lump can be a possible symptom of breast cancer, but it’s vital to know that there are other signs to be aware of too. This could be nipple discharge, dimpling or puckering of the skin of the breast, the breast looking red or inflamed, or swelling in the upper chest or armpit.

“Most breast changes won’t be cancer; however, get any new or unusual breast changes checked by the GP right away. I can assure you COVID-19 doesn’t change this - surgeries have safety measures in place to minimise the risk of the spread of COVID-19 and your GP wants you to get any breast changes checked out without delay.”

Baroness Delyth Morgan, Chief Executive at Breast Cancer Now, said:

“It’s worrying that almost half of women don’t check their breasts regularly for new or unusual changes. That of those women in the UK who have never experienced breast cancer, 46% say this is because they ‘forget’ highlights the urgent need to engage women with the importance of regularly checking their breasts, as an action that could ultimately save their life.

“While most breast changes won’t be breast cancer, when it is, a woman noticing a potential symptom and getting this checked by the GP are often the first steps that lead to diagnosis. Early diagnosis increases the chances of successful treatment, which can prevent women from dying of the disease, meaning the importance of regular breast checking cannot be underestimated.

“It’s encouraging that 87% would visit a doctor if they noticed a new or unusual breast change, but regular breast checking remains the first, quick, easy and critical step to spotting any new or unusual changes, ultimately helping to give women who are diagnosed with breast cancer the best chances of survival.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown us into unprecedented times, but one thing remains the same – that all women must get any potential symptoms of breast cancer checked by a GP. The NHS is ‘open for business’ and calling on people to come forward with any health concerns, reassuring them they won’t be a burden on the NHS. Anyone can also talk to our expert nurses by calling our free Helpline on 0808 800 6000”.

As Breast Cancer Awareness Month draws to a close, the charity is reminding women that it is vital they get into the habit of regular breast checking all year around – the charity’s TLC (‘Touch; Look; Check’) infographic gives women helpful information on breast checking.

ENDS

For further information or to arrange an interview with a case study or spokesperson, contact Breast Cancer Now’s press office on mailto:press@breastcancernow.org or call 07436 107 914.

Case studies

Sarah Manley, 47, a teacher from South London, would go months, sometimes years without checking her breasts for signs of breast cancer. In April 2019, she found a lump by chance and after originally putting off visiting her GP, was diagnosed with breast cancer six weeks later. Sarah had chemotherapy, a lumpectomy and finished radiotherapy in February this year but the national lockdown due to COVID-19 meant the length of her Herceptin treatment was halved. She said:

“I never regularly checked my breasts and would go many months and sometimes even a year without checking. It didn’t ever occur to me that I should check. When I was in my thirties, a friend was diagnosed with breast cancer, but I thought it wouldn’t happen to me.

“I found the lump by pure chance. I was sat in bed eating a piece of toast one morning when a crumb landed on my chest and as I brushed it off I felt a pea-sized lump in my breast. I didn’t think it was anything sinister, so I left it for a few weeks but when my husband felt it he insisted I booked an appointment. I don’t think I would have gone to the doctors if it wasn’t for him, I was worried I would be wasting their time.

“I was completely shocked to be told I had breast cancer. I’d always been so healthy. I was so glad I could start treatment quickly as I just wanted to get on with it. I felt that the sooner we could take action the better.

“My diagnosis has definitely changed my behaviour and checking my breasts is now part of my routine. Looking back, I was checking so infrequently that I didn’t know what was normal for me and wouldn’t have recognised a new change. Now every month I post a reminder on my social media about the importance of getting to know your breasts. If you do find an unusual change don’t put off making a call to your doctor like I did, it’s so important to get it checked out even during COVID-19.”

Amaya Raymond, 36, mum-of-three and nurse from Birmingham, was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer in 2019 and subsequently tested positive for the faulty BRCA1 gene. Amaya is currently taking oral chemotherapy and underwent a double mastectomy and reconstruction three days before the national lockdown was announced. She is awaiting a surgery date for her oophorectomy. She said:

“I’m embarrassed to say that growing up, I never really checked my breasts regularly. I had a healthy diet, exercised and just assumed I was too young to be diagnosed with breast cancer.

“In July 2019, whilst moisturizing after a bath I found a lump in my right breast very close to my armpit. I didn’t feel worried at the time but after showing my mum, I booked a GP appointment to get it checked. When the test results revealed I had breast cancer I couldn’t believe it, my life turned upside down in that very moment. My first thought was of my three beautiful babies; would I get to see them grow up?

“Given my age, my consultant suggested I have a genetic test. When I was told I’d tested positive for the faulty BRCA1 gene I was in total disbelief, it was like being diagnosed with cancer all over again. Once again I thought of my children and was filled with fear that I’d potentially passed this onto them. I was completely overwhelmed.

“I found being diagnosed with breast cancer at such a young age incredibly isolating. I couldn’t relate to women at the hospital having treatment, or to the images online or in information booklets, so I started a blog about my experience so others wouldn’t have the same feelings of loneliness that I’d felt. I want to spread as much awareness of breast cancer and self-checking as possible, particularly in young black women. 

“I now check my breasts regularly every month, it’s so important to make the time for self-checking and learn what’s normal for you and I would urge other young women to make it part of their routine.”

Elizabeth Whitworth, 50, a former dental nurse from Stockport, found a lump in her breast in February 2019, 11 months after her mum and aunt were diagnosed with the disease. She made an appointment to get it checked out and during tests was told there was another lump in her armpit, which she hadn’t realised she should have been checking as well as her breasts. Elizabeth was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer and had chemotherapy, a double mastectomy and radiotherapy, finishing hospital treatment in February this year. She said:

“In March 2018, my dad rang to tell me that my mum had been diagnosed with breast cancer and a week later, her sister was diagnosed with secondary incurable breast cancer. I was totally devastated. I made sure I was checking my breasts and so when I found a lump in my breast nine months later I knew I shouldn’t waste any time before booking a doctor’s appointment.

“During my appointment at the breast clinic I was so confused when they began taking biopsies from my upper chest. The doctor told me they’d found another large lump under my armpit and I was so shocked. I didn’t realise that I had breast tissue in my armpit and that I should have been checking there too. Looking back, I had been experiencing some shooting pains in my chest and now I wonder whether this was also an early warning sign. 

“When the test results came back I felt stunned to be told that I had stage three, HER2 + breast cancer, which had spread to the lymph nodes.

“As I started to talk to others about my diagnosis so many other women came forward saying they too hadn’t realised that they should be checking not only their breasts, but their armpits and upper chest for any new or unusual changes. So I now want to share my experience and make sure all women know the areas to check, what to look out for and to make checking part of their lives.”

Notes to Editors

  1. Results from a quantitative YouGov survey of 1,086 women. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+). Fieldwork was undertaken between 28th - 29th September 2020 and the survey was carried out online.
  2. Cancer Research UK, breast cancer incidence, 2017.
  3. Eight out of 10 cases of breast cancer are diagnosed in women aged 50 and over, Cancer Research UK, breast cancer incidence, 2017.

About Breast Cancer Now

  • Breast Cancer Now is the UK’s first comprehensive breast cancer charity, combining world-class research and life-changing care.
  • Breast Cancer Now’s ambition is that, by 2050, everyone who develops breast cancer will live and be supported to live well.
  • Breast Cancer Now, the research and care charity, launched in October 2019, created by the merger of specialist support and information charity Breast Cancer Care and leading research charity Breast Cancer Now.
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