Often associated with women over the age of 50, breast cancer can actually affect younger women, and even men. Thankfully, awareness is on the rise—here’s what you need to know.
One of the first noticeable symptoms of breast cancer is a lump or an area of thickened breast tissue. Whilst most lumps won’t be cancerous, it is always best to get them checked. Other symptoms include:
- A change in the size or shape of the breasts
- Discharge from the nipples
- A lump or swelling in the armpits
- Dimpling on the skin
- A rash on or around the nipple
- A change in appearance or a sinking of the nipple
Age. The risk of developing breast cancer increases with age, with about eight in 10 cases occurring in women over 50.
Family history. If a person’s close family members have been diagnosed in the past, they have a higher risk of developing breast cancer.
Previous diagnosis. If a person has previously had breast cancer, they are at a higher risk of developing it again. A benign breast lump may also increase the risk.
Dense breast tissue. Younger women tend to have denser breasts, and are at risk of developing breast cancer because there are more cells that can become cancerous.
Hormones. Oestrogen can sometimes stimulate breast cancer cells to grow. The female hormone is dependent on puberty, menopause, pregnancy and hormone replacement therapy. There is also evidence that the contraceptive pill can slightly increase the risk of breast cancer; Cancer Research UK reports that around one percent of breast cancers in women can be attributed to oral contraceptives.
Lifestyle. People who drink more alcohol are at a higher risk of developing breast cancer. Similarly, being overweight or obese has been shown to increase the risk.
Radiation. If chest radiotherapy is administered, a patient should be invited to talk about the slightly increased risk of breast cancer.
Mammographic screening takes X-ray images of the breasts and is the most commonly available method of detecting a breast lesion. Mammograms may fail to detect some cancers and may also increase the chances of extra tests and surgery, even if breast cancer is not present. Most susceptible, women between the ages of 50 and 70 are encouraged to be screened for breast cancer every three years. Mammograms are more difficult to read in women under 50, but some women may be invited for screening if they are considered ‘high risk’.
How to check your breasts for cancer
There’s a good chance of recovery if breast cancer is detected in its early stages. Whilst there is no right way to check your breasts, being aware of them and knowing what to look for can help to identify cancer early. Here’s how to be breast aware:
- Know what’s normal for you
- Familiarise yourself with breast cancer symptoms
- Attend routine screenings if you are 50 or over
- Report any changes without delay
In front of a mirror:
- Look at your breasts and feel them for any lumps or swelling
- Look at your nipples and note any changes or discharge
- Place your hands on your hips and press down to tighten the muscles beneath your breasts
- Bend forward and tighten your chest muscles to look for any changes in contour
- Clasp your hands behind your head and turn side to side
Deciding what treatment is best for each individual can be dependent on the stage and grade of the cancer, as well as the patient’s general health, and whether the patient has experienced the menopause. The main treatments are:
A patient will have breast-conserving surgery to remove the tumour, or a mastectomy to remove the whole breast. Lymph node surgery can also be carried out to determine whether the cancer has spread. Surgery is usually followed by chemotherapy or radiotherapy.
Chemotherapy involves using cytoxic medication to kill the cancer cells. This is usually done after surgery to destroy any remaining cancer cells, but can be done before surgery to shrink a large tumour.
Radiotherapy uses controlled doses of radiation to kill cancer cells. With breast cancer, a patient can have breast radiotherapy to the whole of the remaining breast tissue, chest wall radiotherapy if the patient has had a mastectomy, a breast boost of high-dose radiotherapy in the area where the cancer was removed, or radiotherapy to the lymph nodes.
The causes of breast cancer aren’t fully understood and it is not known whether the disease is possible to prevent. Attending routine screenings, regularly checking your breasts and leading a healthy lifestyle can help to lower the risk of cancer. According to studies referenced by the NHS, regular exercise can reduce the risk of breast cancer by as much as a third.
A healthy lifestyle may also help the outlook of those living with breast cancer. Maintaining a healthy weight and decreasing intake of saturated fat and alcohol is especially important for women who have been through the menopause. Being overweight or obese causes more oestrogen to be produced, which, in turn, can raise the risk of breast cancer. If you have an increased risk of developing breast cancer, undergoing a mastectomy, or a nipple-sparing mastectomy, can reduce the likelihood by up to 90 percent. Medication may also be available for increased-risk women, usually taken once a day for five years.
Being diagnosed is emotionally, as well as physically, draining. Take it easy and talk to your friends and family, as well as people in the same situation as you. Most importantly, know that you’re not alone
This article was originally published in Live to 100 with Dr Hilary Jones. Read the digital edition, here.