Breast Cancer

What is breast cancer?

Breast cancer is the most widespread form of cancer among women in the UK. Every year around 46,000 cases of breast cancer are diagnosed. Breast cancer can affect women and men, but it is much more common in women than men. In 9 out of 10 cases of breast cancer, the first symptom to appear is a lump in the breast. Breast cancer is most common in women over the age of 50 but it can also affect younger women.

Types of breast cancer

There are different forms of breast cancer with the two most common types being non-invasive breast cancer and invasive breast cancer. Non-invasive breast cancer means that the cancerous cells have stayed within the breast and haven't spread to other sections in the body, whereas invasive breast cancer signifies the disease has attacked other parts of the body.

Symptoms of breast cancer

The most frequent sign of breast cancer is the formation of a lump. Most lumps in the breast are not cancerous, though it is best to see your GP if you notice a lump. Other changes in the breast to look out for include:

  • Thickening of the breast tissue
  • Inverted nipples
  • Discharge from the nipples (this is rare)
  • Dimpled skin around the breast
  • Swelling in the armpit or behind the nipple

It is recommended that you see your GP if you notice any of the symptoms listed above or notice any changes to your breasts.

What causes breast cancer?

In many cases the cause of cancer is unknown, but some risk factors have been found for breast cancer:

  • Personal history of breast cancer
  • Family history of breast cancer
  • Hormones: women who have higher levels of certain hormones have a very slightly increased risk of developing breast cancer. This includes women who take the contraceptive pill or have HRT (hormone replacement therapy)
  • Lifestyle factors: women who smoke and drink regularly are more inclined to develop breast cancer
  • Obesity: obesity increases the risk of breast cancer

Breast cancer diagnosis

Should you experience any of the above symptoms, visit your GP who will ask you questions and examine you before referring you to a specialist for tests. Tests will be undertaken at the hospital and the results of these will be analysed so that doctors can reach a concrete diagnosis. Tests that may be carried out include:

  • Mammogram
  • Ultrasound
  • Blood tests
  • Biopsy

Breast cancer treatment

Treatment for breast cancer usually depends on the stage and grade of the cancer. Surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy, or a combination of therapies, may be used to treat breast cancer.

What is the outlook for breast cancer?

The outlook for breast cancer depends largely on the stage and grade of cancer. If cancer has spread to other areas of the body the prognosis is less positive, but if it has not spread and it is diagnosed at an early stage the position is fairly positive.

Living with breast cancer

Learning to accept that you have breast cancer can often be complicated, but your team of care providers will be there to offer counsel and support. You can also contact cancer charities for additional information, practical help and emotional support.

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