What is breast cancer?

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in the UK. Breast cancer can affect anyone (including men). It’s most common in women over the age of 50, although it can develop in younger people, so it’s important to be breast aware no matter your age or gender. 

Breast cancer happens when cells in the breast grow abnormally and form a tumour. There are different forms of breast cancer, which can begin in different parts of the breast. Most breast cancers begin in the breast ducts or glands and spread outside to surrounding breast tissue, this is known as invasive breast cancer. 

Ductal Carcinoma in Situ (DCIS) is a type of non-invasive breast cancer. It’s the earliest type of breast cancer, where the cancer is only found in duct or lobes where it has formed, and hasn’t spread to surrounding breast tissue.

Advanced breast cancer or metastatic breast cancer is when the cancer has spread outside the breast through blood vessels and lymph vessels to another part of the body. 

What are the symptoms of breast cancer?

As the most common cancer in the UK, it’s important to be aware of the signs and symptoms of breast cancer. The earlier it is diagnosed, the easier it is to treat and the higher the chance of successful treatment. Getting to know what your breasts look and feel like normally means it’s easier to spot any unusual changes and check them with your doctor. 

A breast lump or mass is the most common and well-known symptom of breast cancer. But whilst many breast cancers can be felt as a lump in the breast, not all can. There are many different signs and symptoms of breast cancer, so regularly checking your breasts for anything different or new is important. This means checking your breasts, and feeling all the way up to collar bone, as well as your armpits for any changes.

Symptoms of breast cancer include: 

  • A lump or swelling in your breast, upper chest or armpit
  • Changes to your skin, this may be dimpling or puckering
  • Changes to the colour of your breast, your breast may look red or inflamed
  • Changes in the size or shape of your breasts, it’s normal to have slight differences between your breasts, but if you notice any changes to the shape and size of your breasts, get them checked
  • A rash or crusting around your nipple
  • Changes to your nipple, your nipple may have become inverted (pulled in)
  • Discharge from your nipples, you may notice an unusual liquid from either nipple
  • Pain in your breast or armpit

If you have noticed a breast lump or change, or have any new, persistent or unusual symptoms,  do not delay in speaking to your GP.

Breast screening

Regular breast screening is an opportunity to detect any irregularities at the earliest possible stage. Breast screening can detect breast cancer before any obvious symptoms develop, so it is important to ensure that you attend your regular screening mammograms. At HCA Healthcare UK we offer routine breast screening to women over the age of 40, who haven’t had a mammogram in the last 12 months. You don’t need a GP referral and can book directly at one of our breast screening clinics.

It’s important to remember that routine breast screening is to detect any early changes to your breasts, but if you notice any symptoms or changes to your breasts, don’t wait for a routine screening appointment, always see your GP or a breast specialist without delay.

To learn more about what happens during a breast screening, watch our short video below.

Understanding breast cancer risk

If you have a family history of breast cancer, you may be worried about developing it yourself. 

Some breast cancers can be related to an inherited genetic risk. This means you may have an increased risk of developing breast cancer based on a history of cancer in your family.

Two of the genes which significantly increase the risk of breast cancer and can be tested for are BRCA1 and BRCA gene mutations. 

Some people with a family history of breast cancer choose to have a cancer genetic test to discover whether they are carrying a genetic mutation that could cause cancer. Learn more about hereditary cancer and genetic testing

If you are diagnosed with one of these genetic conditions, risk-reducing strategies, such as increased screening, means that many of these cancers can be avoided or caught at an early stage.


Breast cancer facts

Despite breast cancer being the most commonly diagnosed cancer in women in the UK, there are still lots of misconceptions about people’s risk of being diagnosed, the treatment offered and whether you can do anything to lower your own risk. Mr Richard Johnson, Consultant Breast Surgeon at The Wilmslow Hospital, provides his expert opinion on some of these issues and explains why it’s so important to see your GP or breast specialist if you have any concerns.  


At HCA Healthcare UK, across our network of hospitals and clinics, we have extensive expertise in diagnosing and treating cancer. Our teams of cancer specialists, including consultants, cancer nurses and other cancer healthcare experts, come together to ensure that each individual patient receives a personalised treatment plan.

Our cancer care network is based in London and Manchester, where patients can expect the very best diagnostic tests, treatment, aftercare and support.


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