How to Recognize Signs of Breast Cancer

Three Parts:Performing a Breast Self-ExamUnderstanding Risk FactorsPreventing Breast Cancer

Breast cancer occurs when your breast cells develop uncontrollably and a malignant tumor forms.[1] This particular type of cancer impacts many women although occasionally men too. Self-detection is crucial to stopping breast cancer from spreading. Completing regular Breast Self-Exams (BSE) can help you detect cancer before it spreads. Regular mammography is also key.

Part 1
Performing a Breast Self-Exam

  1. Image titled Recognize Signs of Breast Cancer Step 1
    Schedule your breast self-exams. Mark on a calendar when you will do your BSEs. Aim to do a BSE once a month, preferably five to seven days after your period has ended.[2] Doing regular BSEs will help you get to know the "normal" feel of your breasts. Hang a BSE reminder in your bathroom or bedroom so you do not forget. Also, consider starting a journal to record your observations. [3]
    • Plan to do your BSE in a room with good lighting.[4]
  2. Image titled Recognize Signs of Breast Cancer Step 2
    Do a visual examination. Stand with your hands on your hips and look at the mirror. Look to see whether your breasts are their normal size, color, and shape. If you have any of the following symptoms, tell your doctor:
    • Noticeable swelling yet you are not menstruating at the moment
    • Dimpling, puckering, or bulging skin
    • Inverted nipples
    • Nipples that have moved
    • Redness, rashes, or tenderness.[5]
  3. Image titled Recognize Signs of Breast Cancer Step 3
    Raise your arms and repeat the previous visual examination. Look for discharge from your nipples. If you have discharge, check its color (yellow, clear) or consistency (bloody, milky).[6] Be aware of nipple discharge that happens when you are not squeezing your nipple. Also tell a doctor if you have clear or bloody discharge or discharge only from one breast.[7]
  4. Image titled Recognize Signs of Breast Cancer Step 4
    Touch your breasts. Lie down. Bring the pointer, middle, and ring fingers of your right hand together. Feel your left breast with the pads of your three middle fingers in a small, circular pattern.[8] Your circles should have a circumference of 2 cm.[9] Feel your breast from your collarbone down to your abdomen. Then beginning in your armpit area, move from the side to the middle. Repeat the process with your opposite hand to opposite breast. To ensure you feel the entire area, use a pattern like vertical rows. Next, stand up or sit down and repeat these steps. Cover your breast again. Many women prefer to do this last step in the shower.[10]
    • Feel for lumps or any other changes. You should report any detectable lumps to your doctor.
    • You should cover your breast with light, medium, and firm pressure in each circle. In other words, do a circle with light pressure and then repeat the same area with medium and firm pressure. You need to apply light pressure to notice tissue nearest to the skin’s surface. Medium pressure allows you to feel more deeply and the firmest pressure helps you to reach deep tissue near your ribs.[11]
  5. 5
    Be aware of the controversy. Some studies show no increased detection of cancer from self-exams, but instead increased worry and biopsies. Talk with your doctor about BSEs — she may recommend you simply become familiar with your breasts so that if changes occur you will know.

Part 2
Understanding Risk Factors

  1. Image titled Recognize Signs of Breast Cancer Step 5
    Realize the importance of risk factors. Early detection of breast cancer is vital. If you possess any high risk factors, be sure to perform regular BSEs. Seek a mammogram if you feel any lumps or are high risk and over age forty.[12]
  2. Image titled Recognize Signs of Breast Cancer Step 6
    Be aware of genetic predispositions. Women are more likely than men to get breast cancer. Additionally, if you have had close relatives (e.g. mother, sister) with breast cancer, your chance of having breast cancer increases.[13] There also are inherited gene mutations that predispose one to have a higher risk of breast cancer. These gene mutations are BRCA1 and BRCA2. Five to ten percent of breast cancer cases result from gene mutations.[14]
    • In the United States, white women are most at risk of getting breast cancer.[15]
    • Some ethnic groups are more prone to mutated BRCA genes. These include people of Norwegian, Icelandic, Dutch, and Ashkenazi Jewish descent.[16]
  3. Image titled Recognize Signs of Breast Cancer Step 7
    Understand the impact of your medical history. There are many traits of your health history that can impact your risk profile for breast cancer. Women who have had breast cancer in one breast are more likely to get it again. People who have undergone radiation to their chest area as a young child also carry a higher risk. Additionally, other medical facts, like your first period occurring at age 11 or younger, can increase risk. Starting menopause later than average is also a red flag. Taking hormonal therapy after starting menopause increases risk as does never having been pregnant.[17]
  4. Image titled Recognize Signs of Breast Cancer Step 8
    Realize how lifestyle impacts risk. Obese people have a higher chance of getting breast cancer.[18] Women who consume three alcoholic beverages per week also are fifteen percent more likely to get breast cancer.[19]Smokers and particularly women who started smoking prior to the birth of their first child also have an increased risk for breast cancer.[20]

Part 3
Preventing Breast Cancer

  1. Image titled Recognize Signs of Breast Cancer Step 9
    Visit your gynecologist regularly. During your annual gynecological exam, your doctor will check your breasts for lumps or abnormalities. If she detects something irregular, she might recommend that you have a mammogram.
    • If you do not have health insurance or funds to visit a doctor, there are likely resources in your area to help you get preventative care. Planned Parenthood offers consultation services and can direct you to a mammography provider.[21]
    • If you do not know where to look for help, contact your local Department of Health or call the national cancer line at 1-800-4-CANCER. They can refer you to appropriate help for your situation. You could be eligible for cost-free or inexpensive mammograms.
    • See the official US government listing of low-income clinics:
  2. Image titled Recognize Signs of Breast Cancer Step 10
    Get regular mammograms. Once she turns 40, a woman should get a mammogram every two years until she is 74.[22]The earlier you detect breast cancer, the easier it will be to survive. You may have heard that a mammogram is painful, but the pain is momentary and no worse than getting a shot. Plus, it can save your life.
    • If you are at high risk, talk to your doctor about how often you should get a mammogram. If you have a high risk and are under 40 years of age, it is possible your doctor will recommend a mammogram already.
  3. Image titled Recognize Signs of Breast Cancer Step 11
    Be vigilant and prompt in seeking help. Paying attention and knowing your breasts well is the best thing you can do to detect symptoms of breast cancer. If you have any concerns about what you find in your BSEs, see a doctor immediately.
  4. Image titled Recognize Signs of Breast Cancer Step 12
    Make prevention a group effort. Keep your friends and family healthy by arranging a party every year that culminates in everyone getting a mammogram together. This way you can remove the fear from the experience and help each other remember.
    • Consider saying: “I know a lot of women don’t get the mammograms because they’re scary and they can hurt a bit, but I’d love to find a way that we can make it fun. Plus, we’ll get some great girl time!”


  • If any family members have had cancer, gather detailed information that can help your doctor, e.g. type of cancer (primary and secondary), surgery or treatment performed, response to treatment, and outcome.


  • Sometimes, starting treatment just a weeks earlier can make the difference between surviving and not surviving cancer. Do not delay getting tested.

Sources and Citations

Show more... (19)

Article Info

Categories: Breast Health | Cancer