Signs and symptoms of breast cancer and how we diagnose it

Breast cancer is one of the most common forms of cancer in the UK, and while it predominantly affects women over the age of 50, it can also be found in younger women and also in men. That’s why it’s important to be aware of the symptoms of breast cancer and check regularly for any changes.

Here, Mr Daniel Leff, Consultant Oncoplastic Breast Surgeon at The Harley Street Clinic’s One-Stop Breast Unit outlines the changes to look out for and how the team work together to provide a swift diagnosis.

What are the symptoms of breast cancer?

Look out for any changes in appearance, including dimpling of the skin, redness and change in size or shape. You should also look for changes in the nipple, such as unusual discharge, eczema or a rash. The nipple inverting and turning inward can also be a sign of breast cancer.

Many people think pain in the breast is a common symptom of breast cancer but pain is rarely a symptom of breast cancer. Breast cancer is more commonly associated with painless lumps, while pain is often the result of hormonal changes, or else musculoskeletal wear and tear, such as osteoarthritis in older adults.

How often should I be checking my breasts for signs?

For patients at menstrual age, we recommend checking your breast for signs one a month between periods. This can be done easily by looking at your breasts in the mirror and raising your arms to look for lumps and abnormalities as well as feeling and compressing the breast tissue.

Ultimately, you know your breasts better than anyone and will be able to tell if something doesn’t look or feel quite right. Don’t minimise any concerns you may have or self-diagnose - if you’re not sure, it’s always best to come in and get checked by an expert.

What sort of tests or scans will I need?

When you visit The Harley Street Clinic you’ll be seen by a consultant, who will first listen to your concerns and carry out an examination.

You’ll have either a mammogramultrasound or MRI scan. At The Harley Street Clinic, we use something called 3D Mammography, that provides a 3D image containing more information and greater accuracy, as well as 3T MRI scans, that are particularly sensitive for diagnosing breast cancer in younger women. Each scan has its benefits and the types of scan you may require will depend on factors such as your age or your symptoms.

If scans do find an abnormal mass, you may also need a biopsy in order to confirm whether or not it’s cancerous.

What is a biopsy?

A biopsy involves removing a small sample of tissue, usually through a special needle, which will then be examined under a microscope to look for cancerous cells.

It’s important to remember that more often than not, abnormal lumps are actually benign (non-cancerous). There are many causes for benign breast lumps, such as cysts or fibroadenomas. 

What happens next?

You’ll promptly receive your results, so we can begin any further treatment as soon as possible. If you do receive a cancer diagnosis, there is an expert multidisciplinary team at The Harley Street Clinic, and myself and the other consultants work closely with each other and our patients to put together a treatment plan that’s tailored to each person’s needs.

Whatever treatment you may benefit from – including chemotherapy, radiotherapy, immunotherapy or surgery – it’s available across The Harley Street Clinic and Leaders in Oncology Care, as well as breast reconstruction options with advice and expertise of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons. Patients can also access a wide range of supportive services, such as counselling and physiotherapy throughout their treatment and beyond.