Breast cancer

Breast cancer is the most common form of cancer in women which is caused by several factors. These include age, sedentary lifestyle and the menopause.

Unfortunately the risk of breast and several other forms of cancer do increase with age especially once you reach middle age. The main reason for that is a build up of damage within our cells over time which only shows itself once we reach middle age and older.

This is why it is important that you check your breasts on a monthly basis. Look for lumps, bleeding/discharge from the nipple, puckering of the skin around the nipple and any unusual changes to their shape, texture etc.

The menopause and your breasts

Breast health is an important subject for a woman as her breasts undergo several changes throughout her lifetime.

The breasts grow during puberty and once grown, experience a range of changes due to the female hormones oestrogen and progesterone.

These are responsible for breast tenderness, ‘lumpy’feeling in the breasts and an increase in size before the menstrual period. These also increase in size during pregnancy.

A woman may experience a greater amount of breast tenderness and sensitivity which is due to hormonal changes taking place as part of the menopause. These changes may continue into the postmenopausal stage.

If you have ‘dense breasts’ (contain greater amounts of connective and glandular tissue) rather than breasts which are mainly comprised of fat tissue then you may be at an increased risk of breast cancer. This applies to the postmenopausal stage.

This risk may be even greater if you are taking hormone replacement therapy (HRT).

HRT and breast cancer

This is one of several risks of using hormone replacement therapy (HRT) although the risks are considered to be small. However it is as well to be aware of this when deciding whether to use HRT or not to relieve the symptoms of the menopause.

There is a suggestion that long term use of combined HRT (oestrogen and progesterone based HRT) increases the risk of breast cancer. But this risk is reversed once HRT is stopped.

Many women find HRT to be an effective form of treatment for the menopause which eases the symptoms and enables them to go about their daily lives.

But if you are considering HRT and are worried about the risks then speak to your GP. He or she will look at your medical history, assess your general state of health and ask you a range of questions before making a decision.

If HRT is not advisable then he/she will recommend an alternative form of treatment.

Find out more about HRT in our menopause treatment section.

Other risks for breast cancer

Age is the main risk but there are several others which include:

    • Late menopause (after the age of 55)
    • Family history
    • Overweight/obese
    • Never had children
    • Never breastfed
    • Had cancer in the one breast (which may increase of cancer developing in the other).
    • Poor lifestyle
    • Smoking

It is a good idea to get into a routine of checking your breasts and going for regular breast screenings once you reach the menopause.

If you are considered a high risk for breast cancer, for example you have the genes BRCA1 or BRCA2 then you can undergo a genetic test to see if this is the case.

If you are found to be carrying a gene for breast cancer then you will advised to undergo regular breast screening, join a prevention trial and to consider surgery.

(Source: Cancer Research UK/CancerHelp UK/Breast cancer genes)

Reducing the risk of breast cancer

If there is genetic link or a family history then this means that statistically, you are at an increased risk of breast cancer. This does not meant that you will definitely get breast cancer, just that there is a greater chance of you doing so.

But there are women who are at an increased risk who never develop breast cancer.

If there is a history of breast cancer in your family then you may be carrying the breast cancer genes. Speak to your GP about having a genetic test and ways of reducing your risk.

Whilst there are some factors which you cannot change such as your age there are a series of preventative measures you can take to reduce the risk.

These include:

    • A monthly self examination of your breasts
    • Mammography (breast screening)
    • Stopping smoking
    • Reducing your alcohol consumption (if you drink to excess).
    • Taking regular exercise
    • Eating healthily
    • Lose weight (if overweight/obese)

Doing so will not only reduce your risk of breast cancer but will improve your overall health, now and after the menopause.

For more information on lifestyle changes visit our menopause self help section.

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