Breast cancer is now the most common cancer in the UK, and while the survival rates for patients with the disease are better than ever, the earlier breast cancer is diagnosed and treated, the better the long-term prospects.
The disease is not confined to women, but men are 100 times less likely to develop breast cancer.
The causes of breast cancer are not yet fully understood, but the female sex hormone oestrogen can stimulate breast cancer cells to grow, and certain women seem to be more at risk of the disease than others. That said, nine out of ten breast lumps are not cancerous, and are easily treated.
Key risk factors
1. Age - older women are more at risk of developing breast cancer than young women, with 60 per cent of breast cancers occurring in women over 60.
2. Genetics - although the genetic link in breast cancer has been given a lot of publicity, only about one in 20 cases is caused by an inherited faulty gene. Having the faulty gene does not mean you will automatically develop breast cancer, but it does increase your risk considerably.
You may be carrying the gene if: your mother, sister or daughter developed breast cancer before the age of 40; two or more relatives contracted the disease, at least one before they turned 50 (they should both come from one side of your family); several relatives on the same side of the family have developed breast, ovarian or colon cancer.
3. Starting your periods before the age of 12, or going through the menopause after 55 - high oestrogen levels are linked to breast tissue changes. Because your oestrogen levels fluctuate in the course of your monthly cycle, the more cycles you go through, the more times your breasts are exposed to an oestrogen ‘high’.
4. Not having children, or having children after the age of 30 - having children young seems to have a protective effect on breast tissue. This is most likely because your oestrogen levels are stable during pregnancy.
5. A history of benign (non-cancerous) breast lumps - having non-cancerous breast disease raises the risk of breast cancer slightly.
6. Taking HRT or the Pill - both the combined pill and combined hormone replacement therapy contain oestrogen, which can stimulate breast cancer cells to grow. Studies suggest that women who take HRT for 10 years or more have a slightly greater risk of developing breast cancer, while taking the contraceptive pill may slightly increase your chances of getting the disease for up to 10 years after you come off it.
7. Obesity - being very overweight can increase your risk of breast cancer because high body fat is linked to higher oestrogen levels.
8. Diet - if your diet is high in animal fat and red meat and low in fruit, fibre and vegetables you may be increasing your chances of developing the disease. Research suggests that a high intake of animal fats and proteins can cause cell changes that lead to cancer, whereas fruit and veg have a protective effect.
9. Alcohol - research suggests there may be a link between alcohol and breast cancer, but this may be because women who drink more tend to have less healthy diets.
The warning signs
• A change in the size or shape of the breast.
• lump or thickening in the breast, especially if it changes size or shape.
• Skin dimpling, puckering or thickening.
• Your nipple turns in - it becomes inverted.
• A lump or thickening in the nipple.
• A swelling or lump in your armpit - this may indicate that your lymph nodes are affected.
• Bood-stained discharge from the nipple (this is very rare).
• You develop a reddish, scaly rash on your nipple or surrounding area.
• Sudden inflammation of the breast, which may be accompanied by ridges or raised marks on the breast skin, or a pitted ‘orange peel’ effect.
• There is NO evidence that damage to the breast (such as a knock) can cause cancer. Also, breast pain is NOT usually a symptom of breast cancer. Many healthy women find their breasts feel lumpy and tender before their period, and some types of non-cancerous breast lumps are painful.
What can you do?
• If you notice anything unusual about your breasts, see your doctor straight away. Even though most breast lumps are benign, they need to be checked to rule out cancer.
• Breast self-awareness - more than 90 per cent of breast tumours are detected by women themselves, so it is vital that you become familiar with how your breasts normally feel at different times of the month, so you can detect any changes and report them to your doctor. If you are unsure about how to examine your breasts, ask your doctor or the practice nurse to show you how.
• Genetic screening is now available, and there are special clinics for women concerned that they may have an increased risk of developing breast cancer because of their family history.
• Screening - mammograms (breast X-rays) can often detect cancer before it can be felt. As part of its national breast-screening programme, the NHS offers mammograms to all women between the ages of 50 and 64 every three years and to women over 64 on request. More than 70 per cent of women go for their screening appointment. Of these, only six out of every 100 are asked to go back for more tests.
• Stay active - women who are very active are thought to be at less risk of developing breast cancer. This may be because they are less likely to be overweight, or because they eat more healthily, or drink less alcohol.
• Breast feed your children - statistically, women who breast feed, particularly when they are younger, are at less risk.
• Improve your diet - reduce your intake of alcohol, sugar, red meat and animal fats and up the amount of cell-protecting antioxidant-rich fruit and vegetables you eat.
Diseases and Conditions Center
All ArmMed Media material is provided for information only and is neither advice nor a substitute for proper medical care. Consult a qualified healthcare professional who understands your particular history for individual concerns.