Frequently asked questions

Worried about a change in your breast? Wondering what could increase the risk of breast cancer?

Use the links below to find the answers to the most frequently asked questions.

You can call our Helpline or email Ask the Nurse if you want to discuss anything in more detail.

Breast health

Do all breasts and nipples look and feel the same? 
How do I check my breasts, and how often?

Breast screening

When can I have breast screening?
What will happen when I go for breast screening?
Can I ask for a mammogram?
I've had my breasts enlarged with silicone implants. Can I have a mammogram?

Signs and symptoms

Listen to a discussion of these questions with one of our nurses

Why do my breasts feel tender and painful?
I've noticed a discharge from my nipple. Should I see my doctor?
I've found a lump in my breast. Should I see my doctor?
I've been referred to the breast clinic. What will happen now?
My son has a painful, swollen breast. What is it?

Risk factors

Does wearing an underwired bra increase your risk of breast cancer?
Does stress cause breast cancer?
Can an injury to the breasts cause breast cancer?
Does breastfeeding lower my risk of breast cancer?
Is there a link between HRT and breast cancer risk?
Will taking the contraceptive pill increase my risk of breast cancer?
Do deodorants and antiperspirants cause breast cancer?
Does drinking warm bottled water increase the risk of breast cancer?

Family history

Listen to a discussion of these questions with one of our nurses

I've got a family history of breast cancer. How can I find out if it means I'm more at risk?
Can I get a genetic test for breast and ovarian cancer?
Does being of Ashkenazi Jewish descent increase my risk of breast cancer?
My mum has breast cancer. Am I at risk?

Breast health

Do all breasts and nipples look and feel the same?

No, they don't. Breasts vary in size and shape, from very small to very large, very full or drooping. It’s common to have one breast that’s bigger than the other and sometimes this difference is noticeable.

Breasts can feel different too, and the right breast can feel different to the left. Some women have lumpy breasts all the time, while others get lumpy breasts just before their period. Some have tender or painful breasts once in a while, others have breast pain all the time.

Nipples look different too. They can be large or small, pale or dark in colour, stick out, lie flat on the breast or turn inwards.

Women’s breasts change throughout their lives, for example when they’re pregnant, breastfeeding, gaining or losing weight, while they’re having periods and once their periods have stopped. Take a look at more information about breasts and being breast aware.

Return to frequently asked questions

How do I check my breasts, and how often?

Once your breasts have developed, check them by looking and feeling. Do this regularly throughout your life. There’s no set time when to look and feel.

There’s no specific way to check. Look at your breasts and feel them with any part of your hand or fingers. For example, some people prefer to use their fingertips, others the palm of their hand. Check all parts of your breast, your armpits and up to your collarbone.

A mirror can help you look at the parts you can’t see easily. You may find body lotion or a soapy hand helps when you’re feeling your breasts.

Get to know how your breasts usually look and feel. Then you’ll notice any unusual changes and feel more confident about going to your GP to get them checked.

Men also need to be breast aware. In the UK around 350 men are diagnosed with breast cancer each year.

Return to frequently asked questions

Breast screening

When can I have breast screening?

In the UK, women aged 50 to 70 are invited for breast screening every three years as part of a national screening programme. To be invited for screening you have to be registered with a GP.

You will get your first invitation between your 50th and 53rd birthday (in England the age range for screening is being extended from 47 to 73, so your first invitation may come sooner than 50). You can contact your GP or local breast screening unit for more information.

Women over 70 (73 in England) can continue to have a routine mammogram every three years. They will need to contact their GP or local breast unit to make an appointment.

Between each screening mammogram, it’s important to continue to be breast aware and see your GP if you notice any unusual changes.

Return to frequently asked questions

What will happen when I go for breast screening?

Breast screening involves an x-ray examination of the breasts, called a mammogram. Breast screening usually takes about half an hour.

First, you’ll be asked to complete a questionnaire. It will ask about you, any ongoing medical conditions, if you’re taking hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and if you’ve had any breast problems. Then the radiographer will explain what will happen and answer any questions you have.

For the mammogram you’ll need to undress down to the waist. You will stand in a set position and your breasts will be placed one at a time on the x-ray machine. The breast will be pressed down firmly on the surface by a clear plate. You will need to stay in this position while the x-ray is taken. You may find it uncomfortable but it only takes a few seconds.

The results are usually sent to you and your GP within two weeks. Sometimes the results letter may ask you to go back for further assessment (recall). It will explain the reasons why. A recall doesn’t necessarily mean you have breast cancer but you may need more tests to find out what has shown up on the mammogram.

Remember to check your breasts and be breast aware.

Return to frequently asked questions

Can I ask for a mammogram?

You’ll only be offered a mammogram (breast x-ray) on the NHS if:

Mammograms can be done at a private hospital. If you have private medical insurance this may cover the cost of the mammogram, any other tests and follow-up with a doctor. If you’re paying for it yourself, the total cost may be expensive.

If you have any specific concerns – for example, you’ve noticed a change in one of your breasts – see your GP.

Otherwise, remain breast aware by following the Breast Cancer Care checklist:

  • Look at and feel your breasts so you know what’s normal for you.
  • Do this regularly to check for changes.
  • Tell your doctor as soon as possible if you notice anything.

Return to frequently asked questions

I’ve had my breasts enlarged with silicone implants. Can I have a mammogram?

Yes, you can. The mammogram (breast x-ray) may not be as clear because the implants can obscure some of the breast tissue. Therefore, other tests may also be done.

Women with breast implants who are invited for a mammogram as part of a national screening programme need to tell the radiographer that they have breast implants.

The mammogram may need to be done at the main mammography department rather than in a mobile unit, so it can be checked straight away to make sure the implants haven’t obscured the picture.

Return to frequently asked questions

Signs and symptoms

Why do my breasts feel tender and painful?

Breast pain is very common. It affects around two out of three pre-menopausal women at some point.

There are two types of breast pain. Cyclical pain is associated with a woman’s periods, and usually happens for a week or so before a period. Non-cyclical pain can occur at any time, and can be there all the time. You can have pain in one or both breasts and you may describe it as a burning, prickling or stabbing feeling.

There are practical things you can do to relieve breast pain, and drug treatments are available too. Find out more about breast pain and what can help.

You could also try filling in a pain chart (you can find one in our Breast pain) to record when you get pain and how long it lasts for. It’s a useful record to show to your GP.

Return to frequently asked questions

I’ve noticed a discharge from my nipple. Should I see my doctor?

You should see your GP if you have nipple discharge without squeezing your nipple. They may refer you to your local breast clinic.

Nipple discharge in one or both breasts can happen for several reasons. Most women, especially if they’ve ever been pregnant, can squeeze some discharge out of their nipples. The discharge can be whitish, yellow-green or almost black. However, it’s not a good idea to squeeze your nipples.

Nipple discharge is usually harmless. It’s most often due to a benign (not cancer) breast condition, such as duct ectasia or an intraductal papilloma, which may or may not need further treatment once it’s been diagnosed.

Sometimes nipple discharge can be a symptom of breast cancer, particularly if it’s bloodstained.

Return to frequently asked questions

I've found a lump in my breast. Should I see my doctor?

It’s important to get any breast lumps checked by your GP. They may refer you to your local breast clinic for more tests to find out what the lump is.

Lumps in the breast are common and most are a symptom of a normal breast change or a benign (not cancer) breast condition.

Lumps can occur at any time, though some are more common in certain age groups. For example, in younger women (aged 15-30) they are often fibroadenomas, while breast cysts are more common in women over 35 who haven’t reached the menopause.

A lump in the breast, under the arm or near the collarbone can sometimes be a symptom of breast cancer.

Return to frequently asked questions

I've been referred to the breast clinic. What will happen now?

If you’ve been referred to a breast clinic by your GP in England, you should be seen within two weeks. You may have to wait longer if the breast clinic is particularly busy. Waiting times may be different in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, although guidelines state you should be seen promptly.

At the clinic, you’ll be seen first by a doctor or specialist nurse. They will ask about your symptoms, any family history of breast cancer and any medication you’re taking

You’ll then have a breast examination. Both breasts will be checked, with you sitting, then lying down. The lymph glands (nodes) in your armpits will be checked too.

You may need further tests such as:

  • a mammogram (breast x-ray)
  • an ultrasound scan
  • a fine needle aspiration (FNA)
  • a core biopsy.

Read more information about mammograms and other tests.

You may have all the tests you need at this first visit and get the results the same day. Or you may need another appointment for the tests or to get your results, usually about a week later. This varies with each breast clinic.

Return to frequently asked questions

My son has a painful, swollen breast. What is it?

Pain or enlarged breast tissue in boys is usually due to a condition called gynaecomastia and is nothing to worry about. It happens to about half of all teenage boys.

The symptoms of gynaecomastia can vary from a small enlargement of breast tissue just behind the nipple to a larger more female-looking breast. Gynaecomastia can affect one or both sides. The area can be tender to touch or painful.

It can start anytime from about 10 years and the breasts may be quite large by 13 or 14. In the mid to late teens they start to get smaller again, usually flattening out by 18 or 19.

Some boys who are overweight have fat on their chests that makes it look like they have breasts, but this isn’t gynaecomastia. It isn’t usually painful and is helped by losing weight.

Your son’s GP may be able to identify gynaecomastia or may refer him to a breast clinic.

Return to frequently asked questions

Risk factors

Does wearing an underwire bra increase your risk of breast cancer?

No, wearing an underwire bra does not increase your risk of breast cancer.

If your bra is too tight or too small, the wires can dig into your breasts and cause discomfort, pain or swelling.

To find out how a bra should fit for comfort and support, read our illustrated leaflet Your guide to a well-fitting bra.

Return to frequently asked questions

Does stress cause breast cancer?

There’s no conclusive evidence that stress increases the risk of developing breast cancer.

It’s thought that when we are under stress, our lifestyle behaviours may change. For example, we might overeat and drink more alcohol during this time. Being overweight and drinking too much alcohol both increase the risk of developing breast cancer, and it may be these factors, rather than stress alone, that contribute to the risk.

Stress can affect our general physical and emotional health. If you’re feeling stressed, talk to your GP or practice nurse about how you might reduce your stress levels. You can also read tips on dealing with stress and anxiety on the NHS Choices website.

Return to frequently asked questions

Can an injury to the breasts cause breast cancer?

No, it can't. An injury, such as falling or being hit in the chest, will not cause breast cancer. It may cause bruising and swelling to the breast, which can be tender or painful to touch.

Sometimes an injury may result in a benign (not cancer) lump known as fat necrosis. Fat necrosis is scar tissue that can form when the body naturally repairs the damaged fatty breast tissue.

Return to frequently asked questions

Does breastfeeding lower my risk of breast cancer?

Breastfeeding may slightly lower the risk of breast cancer.

There is evidence that breastfeeding for more than five months in total (one or more babies) can reduce a woman’s risk of breast cancer compared to women who do not breastfeed. It also shows that the longer a woman breastfeeds, the greater the protection.

However, women who breastfeed still get breast cancer and many women are either unable to breastfeed or choose not to.

It’s also important to remember that the three main risk factors for breast cancer – gender, increasing age and a significant family history – are ones we can do nothing about.

Find out more about the risk of breast cancer.

Return to frequently asked questions

Is there a link between HRT and breast cancer risk?

Taking HRT (hormone replacement therapy) after the age of 50 is associated with a small increased risk of developing breast cancer. The type you take and how long you take it for may affect the risk, and the risk also reduces over time once you stop taking HRT.

Combined HRT (oestrogen and progestogen) accounts for six extra cases of breast cancer in every 1,000 women who take it for five years between the ages of 50 and 59. There appears to be no increased risk if it’s taken for less than three years. Oestrogen-only HRT has a lower risk than combined HRT.

Having a risk factor doesn’t mean that someone will develop breast cancer. And even if a risk factor is identified in someone with breast cancer, there’s no way of proving that this was the cause.

Return to frequently asked questions

Will taking the contraceptive pill increase my risk of breast cancer?

Many studies have looked at whether taking the oral contraceptive pill increases the risk of developing breast cancer. These have produced conflicting results, with some finding an increased risk and others not.

Experts agree that any increase in risk is likely to be small and only applies when you are taking the pill.

Younger women are more likely to be taking the pill, and breast cancer is much less common in younger women, with more than 8 out of 10 cases occurring in women who have been through the menopause.

The oral contraceptive pill is an effective way of preventing an unwanted pregnancy. If you have concerns about taking it, talk to your GP.

Return to frequently asked questions

Do deodorants and antiperspirants cause breast cancer?

There's no conclusive evidence that deodorants and antiperspirants cause breast cancer.

Some people worry that deodorants and antiperspirants stop the body from sweating out toxins and that these toxins can build up in the lymph glands under the armpit and cause breast cancer.

However, our bodies have several ways of getting rid of toxins and, while sweating is one of them, it does not involve the lymph glands.

Parabens are chemicals used in deodorants and antiperspirants, as well as many other cosmetic products and food products as a preservative. They have similar properties to the female hormone oestrogen. Parabens have been found in breast tissue removed following breast cancer and, as a result, it has been suggested parabens may have been the cause.   

However, the research carried out on this subject has not found any convincing evidence that parabens cause breast cancer.

A few years ago, a small study found higher levels of aluminium in breast tissue just under the skin and it was suggested that deodorants containing high levels of aluminium may have been a possible cause. However, there is no reliable evidence to support this claim.

Return to frequently asked questions

Does drinking warm bottled water increase the risk of breast cancer?

Drinking warm bottled water does not increase the risk of breast cancer.

Some people worry that warming (or freezing) plastic bottles or food containers releases a chemical called bisphenol A (BPA) which can interact with our hormones and cause breast cancer.

It’s true that if a plastic bottle or container is exposed to extremely high temperatures, chemicals such as BPA in the plastic are released into the water or food product inside. But the amount released would still be within safe limits and would not cause any harm.

Research has shown that, even when consumed at high levels, BPA is not a health concern.

Return to frequently asked questions

Family history

I’ve got a family history of breast cancer. How can I find out if it means I’m more at risk?

The first thing to do is to see your GP. Take as much information as you can about your blood relatives on both your mother’s and father’s sides of the family who have had a cancer diagnosis.

For each family member who has had cancer your GP needs to know:

  • what relation they are to you and to each other
  • which cancer they had
  • how old they were when they had it
  • if they are still alive or when they died.

Your GP will use national guidelines such as from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) to assess the information. If they feel that your family history is ‘significant’, they will refer you to a family history clinic or cancer genetics centre for further assessment.

Return to frequently asked questions

Can I get a genetic test for breast and ovarian cancer?

Genetic testing will only be offered to you if you have already been assessed at a family history clinic or a regional cancer genetics centre and you know you’re at high risk of breast cancer.

Genetic testing helps find out if someone has one of the known altered genes (such as  BRCA1, BRCA2 or TP53) that puts them at high risk of developing certain types of cancers.

When testing is done, a relative who has had breast or ovarian cancer is usually tested first to look for an altered gene. If you have had breast cancer yourself then the blood may be taken from you. If you haven’t had breast cancer and no one in your family who has had a diagnosis is available for testing, you may be able to have the test yourself.  

Find out more about genetic testing.

Return to frequently asked questions

Does being of Ashkenazi Jewish descent increase my risk of breast cancer?

Yes it may, depending on how many of your relatives are/were from the Ashkenazi Jewish community.

A small number of families are at high risk of breast cancer because they carry certain altered genes. These altered genes are found more in Ashkenazi Jewish people than in the general population, although it’s still only a small number (1 in 40).

To find out more about your risk of developing breast and/or ovarian cancer, see your GP. They will look at your family history and may refer you for further assessment to a family history clinic or regional cancer genetics centre.

Return to frequently asked questions

My mum has breast cancer. Am I at risk?

Having a relative with breast cancer doesn’t necessarily mean you’re more likely to develop it yourself. Breast cancer is the most common cancer in the UK, and most breast cancers are not inherited and do not increase the lifetime risk for other family members.

A small number of people have an increased risk of developing breast cancer because they have a significant family history. A family history records past and present cancers of your blood relatives (people related by birth, not marriage) over several generations.

If your family history suggests that you may have a moderate or high risk of breast cancer, you’re likely to be referred directly to a specialist family history clinic or regional genetics centre.

You should be referred for further assessment if you have:

  • one close relative who has had breast cancer before the age of 40
  • two or more close relatives who have had breast cancer
  • close relatives who have had breast cancer and others who have had ovarian cancer
  • one close relative who has had breast cancer in both breasts (bilateral breast cancer)
  • a male relative who has had breast cancer
  • Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry. 

Find out more about how family history is assessed.

Return to frequently asked questions

Last reviewed: August 2014
Next planned review is August 2016

Share

Related Publication