Thanks to earlier detection and better treatment, more women are surviving breast cancer.
However, it stills remains the most common cancer in the UK with over 47,000 women being diagnosed each year.
What is breast cancer?
The breast is made up of millions of cells. Breast cancer develops when a single cell begins to multiply out of control and forms a tumour. These tumourous cells may break away, and travel to other parts of the body forming new tumours.
Being breast aware is a normal part of general body awareness. It is a process of getting to know your own breasts and becoming familiar with their appearance.
You can become familiar with your breasts by looking and feeling them – you can do this in any way you like – this can be in the shower, the bath or when dressing.
“Only 30% of lesbian and bisexual women check their breasts for lumps or changes every month and 50% check every few months.” (Prescription for Change, Stonewall, 2008)
What increases your risks?
There are a number of factors that may increase your risk of getting breast cancer. Below are a few examples:
The risk of developing breast cancer is strongly linked to age. The older you are, the higher your risk of developing the disease. However, its still possible for younger women to develop breast cancer.
The majority of breast cancer cases are not hereditary; although having breast cancer in your family can increase your chances of developing the condition.
Your risk is greater if you have several close relatives who have had it, or a mother or sister who developed the disease before the age of 50 or before menopause.
Drinking alcohol increases the risk of breast cancer. The more you drink each day, the greater your risk.
If you are postmenopausal, and you are overweight, you may be more at risk of developing breast cancer.
Taking oral contraceptives may cause a small increase in risk, but your risk gradually returns to normal after you stop taking them.
Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) is associated with a slightly increased risk of developing breast cancer. Both combined HRT and oestrogen-only HRT can increase your risk of developing breast cancer, although the risk is slightly higher again if you take combined HRT.
Pregnancy has a complex effect on breast cancer risk. In general it is believed to have both short and long term effects on the risk of developing the disease.
Over the long term, having a baby reduces the risk of developing breast cancer and women who have their first child at a younger age have a greater reduction in their risk.
For example, a woman who has her first child before the age of 20 has a lower risk of breast cancer than a woman who has her first child after 30 or a woman who has not had children at all.
The risk of breast cancer also slightly decreases the more children a woman has and the earlier she has them.
Getting to know yourself
Earlier detection of breast cancer can result in simpler and more effective treatment. It is important to remember that everyone’s breasts look and feel different. It’s normal to regularly have lumpy breasts, and to have tenderness or pain around your period. A good time to check your breasts is right after your period.
There is no right or wrong way of checking for breast cancer. Get into a habit of looking at and feeling your breasts. This will allow you to feel confident about noticing any changes.
Remember to check all parts of your breast, your armpit and up to your collar bone. Looking in a mirror may help you to notice any changes to the shape of your breasts.
When checking your breasts, try to be aware of any changes that are different for you. These could include:
- A change in shape and size
- A lump or thickening in your breast or armpit
- Dimpling of the skin (like the texture of orange peel)
- Discharge from the nipple
- A rash on your nipple or surrounding area
- Nipples becoming inverted or changing shape or position
- Discomfort or pain in the breast or armpit
If you notice any changes, it is always a good idea to visit your doctor. Most changes are not due to cancer, so although it may be hard, it is important not to worry. You can always take someone you trust with you, and can ask to see a female doctor if you prefer.
What happens next?
All patients suspected of having breast cancer must be seen by a hospital specialist within 2 weeks of an urgent referral by their GP.
To make an accurate diagnosis, doctors need to carry out a thorough examination. This may include using an ultrasound and mammogram. They may also take blood, chest x-rays and a tissue sample for examination.
If the result is positive for cancer, the appropriate treatment will then be determined. The exact treatment used, how soon it’s given, and how long it takes, all depends on several factors, including:
- The stage of the tumour (how far it has spread) and whether there is secondary cancer (if it has spread to other parts of the body)
- The general fitness of the patient
- The menopausal status of the patient
- The patient’s own wishes
If it is felt treatment will not be effective, a mastectomy (removal of the breast) may have to take place. Early detection and improved treatment has meant that death rates due to breast cancer in the UK have dropped in recent years.
Routine screening for breast cancer
As the majority of breast cancers occur in people between 50 – 70 years old, women who are registered with a doctor and within this age range are invited every 3 years for a mammogram (breast x-ray). Women under 50 and over 70 are not routinely screened, but if you have a family history or notice any changes, then see your GP.