Condition: Breast Cancer

Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer in the UK, with around 55,500 women and 370 men diagnosed each year.

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What is breast cancer?

Breast cancer is cancer that originates in the breast tissue. Most often, breast cancer starts in the cells that line the milk ducts of the breast, but it can develop in any area of breast tissue. The disease develops when abnormal cells in the breast start to grow and divide in an uncontrolled way which eventually causes a tumour to form.

Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer in the UK, with around 55,500 women and 370 men diagnosed each year. As with any type of cancer, the earlier breast cancer is diagnosed, the higher the chances of treatment being effective, so it’s important to be aware of the symptoms.

What are the symptoms of breast cancer?

Your breasts will look and feel different points throughout your menstrual cycle so it’s important to know what’s normal for you so that you can identify any unusual changes.

Symptoms of breast cancer to look out for when checking your breasts include:

  • A new lump or thickening in your breast or armpit

  • A change in the size, shape or feel of your breast

  • One breast becoming larger, lower or higher, or softer or firmer than the other breast

  • Continuous breast pain in one part of your breast or armpit

  • A nipple that becomes inverted or changes shape or position

  • Changes in the skin of your breasts such as puckering, dimpling, a rash or redness

  • Swelling under your armpit or around your collarbone

  • A rash on or around your nipple

  • Discharge from one or both nipples (outside of pregnancy and breastfeeding)

Breast cancer in men is rare, but the most common symptom is a firm lump in the breast tissue on one side of the body, that is usually painless.

Other symptoms may include:

  • Oozing from the nipple (discharge may be blood-stained)

  • Swelling of the breast tissue

  • A sore on the skin of the breast

  • A retracted nipple

  • Lumps under the arm

What causes breast cancer?

Exactly what causes breast cancer isn’t fully understood, but there are several risk factors that  can increase your chances of developing the disease, including:

  • Age – older women are much more likely to develop breast cancer than younger women

  • Reproductive History – if you started menstruating at a young age and experienced menopause at a later age than average, your chances of breast cancer may be increased. Not having children or having them later in life may also increase your risk

  • Hormone treatments – HRT and some types of oral contraceptives could increase your risk of breast cancer. This risk is temporary and declines over a period of years once the treatment has stopped

  • Breast density – women with more dense breasts are at an increased risk of developing breast cancer compared to women with less dense breasts

  • Family History – if you have a mother or sister who’s been diagnosed with breast cancer, your risk factor is higher than that of a woman with no family history

Men at higher risk of breast cancer include those who have high oestrogen levels, have been exposed to radiation, have a family history or breast cancer gene in the family, are obese, have a chronic liver condition, or have a rare genetic condition called Klinefelter's syndrome.

How is breast cancer diagnosed?

Initial screening tests for breast cancer include a mammogram and a breast ultrasound. If any abnormalities are found on an imaging scan, you may need to have a biopsy to look for abnormal cells in the tissue.

If the biopsy confirms a diagnosis of breast cancer, additional tests will be required to determine the stage and grade of the cancer, which will help your doctor determine which type of treatment will be most effective. These tests may include a CT scan, chest x-ray, liver ultrasound, MRI scan and bone scan.

What are the treatment options for breast cancer?

The treatment recommended for breast cancer depends on the size and stage of the disease, if it has spread to other areas in your body, and your general health. You may only need to have one type of treatment or your specialist may recommend a combination of several treatments for the best possible outcome.

Treatments for breast cancer include:

  • Surgery – part or all of the breast may be removed as well as any lymph nodes that may have been affected

  • Radiotherapy – high-energy X-rays target and kill the cancer cells. Radiotherapy is often given after surgery across multiple sessions

  • Chemotherapy – chemotherapy is a type of drug used to kill cancer cells and shrink tumours. It’s usually given intravenously (through a drip into the vein) in hospital, but some can be taken at home in tablet form

  • Hormone therapy – hormone-receptive breast cancers may require hormone therapy in order to lower certain hormone levels to help shrink tumours or stop them from growing

  • Targeted therapy – given as tablets or injections, targeted therapy works to change the way cells work to help stop the cancer from growing and spreading

You can read more about what to look out for with changes in your breast by downloading our simple guide:

Patient Information - Breast Awareness

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