Breast cancer awareness

How much do you really know about breast cancer? Are you at risk?

What is breast cancer?

Breast cancer is a group of abnormal cells, which continue to grow and multiply in the breast. Normally cells grow and multiply in an orderly way but changed genes can cause them to behave abnormally. In the breast they may grow into a lump.

These lumps can be benign or malignant. Benign lumps do not spread to other parts of the body. A malignant lump is made up of cancer cells. When it first develops, this malignant tumour is confined to the breast. Most lumps are not cancerous.

Breast cancer develops in either the ducts or the lobules. Lobules are where the milk is produced and ducts are where the milk travels to the nipple. Cancer cells develop when the cells lining the ducts or lobules become abnormal in size and shape and start multiplying in an uncontrolled way. If the cancer is not removed and controlled, the cancer cells can spread to other parts of the body. These are called secondary cancers or metastases.

Breast cancer in men

Breast cancer in men is rare but does still occur. Less than 1% of all people with breast cancer are men. Breast cancer in men is on the rise with about one hundred men being diagnosed in Australia this year.

Breast cancer in men occurs more commonly in those aged 50 years and older.
Both men and women have breast tissue. We don’t know exactly why breast cancer develops in men or in women. We do know that there are risk factors that may increase a man’s risk of developing breast cancer.

When breast cancer strikes

Breast cancer is the major cause of cancer death in Australian women accounting for more than 11,700 new cases of breast cancer and 2,600 deaths each year. Early detection is the best method for reducing deaths from breast cancer.

Women whose cancer is still contained in the breast when diagnosed have a 90% chance of surviving five years, compared with a 20% five-year survival chance when the cancer has spread at diagnosis.

The incidence of breast cancer is increasing, but with continued support and funding from the National Breast Cancer Foundation, improvements in research mean survival rate is on the rise.

What has research taught us about breast cancer?

Research has given us new knowledge in all areas of breast cancer, from the benefits of screening and early detection, to better diagnoses and treatments and finally hope for prevention.

To date, research has given us a greater understanding of breast cancer cells and how they function. This understanding has enabled researchers to develop better, more targeted treatments.

Treatment

Breast cancer treatment does not always mean major disfigurative surgery. Thanks to new knowledge from research, specialists can now treat many breast cancer cases by removing the lump itself, leaving the breast intact.

Research has shown us that breast screening is an effective way to detect breast cancers early for women aged 50-69 years, giving patients a greater chance of survival. However screening mammography is not suitable for young women and we need more research to improve early detection in young women

What should women look out for?

Look for any changes in the breast which are not normal for you, or which you have not seen before. You should visit a GP if you notice any of the following important changes:

  • Lump, lumpiness or thickening in the breast
  • Changes in shape, crusting, ulcerated or sore nipples.
  • Discharge from nipple or bloodstained occurs without squeezing.
  • Changes in the skin of the breast, puckering, dimpling or redness.
  • Persistent unusual pain which is not related to the normal monthly cycle
  • An increase or decrease in the size of the breast.

Breast cancer becomes more common as you grow older, so knowing what is normal for your breasts is just as important after menopause.

How to find changes in your breast?

  • Look at the shape, size and skin on your breasts and nipples in the mirror. Check for any changes that may have occurred in the last few months.
  • Self examination – Remember that your breast tissue spans across from your collar bone, to the armpit and includes the area around the nipple.

Visit your GP promptly

Your GP will know how to investigate any changes in your breast to find out the cause. The vast majority of women who find a breast change will be relieved to know that it is not breast cancer. For those women whose changes are due to breast cancer; the sooner breast cancer is diagnosed, the better the chance of effective treatment.

So visit your GP about any changes in your breasts that are not normal for you. While it may take a week or so to decide whether the breast change is unusual, it is important not to delay too long before seeing a GP.

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