Most cases of breast cancer occur in women over the age of 50.
In this article: What is breast cancer? Diagnosis Advice & Support Symptoms Effect on your life Causes Treatment
What is breast cancer? Breast cancer (cancer of the breast) can occur in either sex, but is most commonly found in women. It is also the most common type of cancer found in women.
Cancer is a disease where abnormal cells in the body begin to grow, divide and reproduce in an uncontrollable way. These abnormal cells then invade and destroy healthy tissue, including organs. With breast cancer, malignant (cancer) tissues form in the breast. These accumulate into a lump.
Symptoms Symptoms of breast cancer can differ from person to person, and can include:
a lump in the breast (that doesn’t go away after your menstrual period) changes to the nipple where it appears to become ‘inverted’ (and sometimes has a blood-stained discharge from it) a change in breast shape and size a change to the texture of breast skin (e.g., dimpling), and a painful breast (in rare cases)
Causes What causes the disease to develop is not yet fully understood, but statistics show that you are more likely to develop breast cancer if you:
have already had cancer in one of your breasts are over 50 (about 8 in 10 women diagnosed with breast cancer are 50+) have been exposed to radiation at some point in your life had your first pregnancy after the age of 30 have no children started your periods early had a late menopause
As well as possibly having a genetic predisposition to developing breast cancer (i.e. you have a family history of the disease), other risk factors of breast cancer include lifestyle factors, such as: drinking alcohol excessively, smoking, having a high-fat diet, and being overweight.
Diagnosis If you notice any lump or change to your breast then make an appointment to see your GP immediately. If breast cancer is diagnosed at an early stage, then your prospects of curing the disease are significantly increased.
To make an accurate diagnosis, your GP will examine your breasts to check for any lumps or changes. Your GP may then refer you to a specialist for further assessment tests which can include:
A mammogram – an X-ray of your breast tissue to check for tumours (a mammogram can identify cancerous cells before a lump actually develops) An ultrasound scan of your breast to check for cancerous cells An MRI scan of your breast to check for cancerous cells
A biopsy (the removal of a small sample of your breast tissue) may be carried out to check for abnormal cells, and to confirm or rule out cancer. This is usually performed with a needle which is inserted into the lump.
Please note: For women aged 50–70, breast screening is available free of charge every three years through the NHS.
Effect on your life Being diagnosed with breast cancer can be an extremely traumatic experience. If possible, it is advisable to take someone who is emotionally strong with you to your consultations, to act as a support. Cancer consultants and nurse specialists are attuned to responding to your questions and will understand your needs.
After treatment, you may find doing normal everyday things like carrying shopping, driving, or walking your dog difficult at first due to soreness in the breast area (particularly if you have opted for breast reconstruction surgery after a mastectomy, as not only will your breast(s) be sore but also you may have had body tissue removed from your back area to aid the reconstruction process, making your back weaker than normal).
Treatment Treatment options for breast cancer include:
Surgery – where just the primary cancerous lump is removed (lumpectomy), or the affected breast is removed completely (mastectomy), depending upon how advanced the cancer is Radiotherapy – high-energy radiation beams are focused upon the breast area (once the lump or breast is removed) killing any remaining active cancerous cells and preventing the disease from spreading Chemotherapy – sometimes offered after surgery and radiotherapy. Chemotherapy is where chemical agents/drugs are administered in order to kill any remaining active cancerous cells not just in the upper body area, but the whole body Hormone treatment – usually used after surgery and radiotherapy, tamoxifen and other hormones can greatly reduce the risk of cancer returning Herceptin – a medicine that can sometimes reduce the size of a cancerous tumour in the breast, and even stop the growth of breast cancer. It is usually administered by a drip through the vein (via a fine tube) and in combination with chemotherapy treatment.
Advice & Support Breast Cancer Care Helpline: 0808 800 6000 Website: www.breastcancercare.org.uk
Breakthrough Breast Cancer Info line: 08080 100 200 Website: http://breakthrough.org.uk/
National Hereditary Breast Cancer Helpline Tel: 01629 813000 Website: www.breastcancergenetics.co.uk
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