Breast cancer is the most common cause of cancer-related deaths among women. Current statistics show one in 11 Australian women are likely to have breast cancer at some stage. Men can get breast cancer too, although only 1% of all breast cancer patients are men.
Unfortunately, the causes of breast cancer are still unknown. It is likely that many factors work together to cause breast cancer. Some common factors include:
- Being a woman and getting older. Breast cancer is most common in women over 50 years of age, although it can occur in younger women too.
- Having a strong family history of breast cancer.
- Not having children, or having your first child when you’re over 30.
- Early menstruation (having your periods start when you’re very young) or late menopause.
- Having had breast cancer before, or cancer of the ovary, uterus, bone or soft tissue.
However, it’s important to note that having several of these risk factors does not automatically mean you’ll get breast cancer. And conversely, many women with breast cancer have no known risk factors.
Most women who get breast cancer don’t have any family history of the disease, but for some women it can run in the family. If genetics are a factor, the trend tends to involve several close relatives (like your mother, sisters, or aunts) and the cancer often appears before the age of 50.
Some other factors which may also influence the development of breast cancer are:
- Eating a diet high in animal fat, and low in fibre, fruit and vegetables
- obesity in post-menopausal women
- Having a high intake of alcohol
- Long-term smoking, particularly women who started smoking as a teenager
- Inactive lifestyle
- Taking hormone replacement therapy or hormone drugs
Contrary to popular belief, there are also several factors which won’t increase your risk, including:
- A bump or a blow to the breast. This will not cause breast cancer, although it may make you more aware of an underlying lump.
- Breast cancer is not contagious. You can’t catch any sort of cancer from another person.
- Breastfeeding does not cause breast cancer. In fact, prolonged breastfeeding may actually decrease your risk of developing breast cancer.
The symptoms of breast cancer may sometimes be difficult to detect as your breasts change throughout your life, and even during each month with your cycle. However, there are several signals to look out for that may indicate something is wrong, including:
- A breast lump
- A skin rash or itching
- Changes in the colour of your breast skin
- Puckering, roughness or a dimpling of your skin
- Retraction or pulling in of your nipple (a nipple that’s always been turned inwards is nothing to worry about)
- Discharge or leaking from your nipple
- Pain anywhere in the breast
- Swelling or discomfort in your armpit
Breast cancer is often the first thing you think of when you find a lump or something unusual. The good news is that most breast changes are not cancer, but it’s always best to get anything unusual checked out by your doctor.
Early detection of breast cancer is the key to successful treatment and survival. If breast cancer is detected early, while still localised in the breast, chances of five-year survival are around 90%.
What you can do to ensure early detection:
- Be aware of the usual look and feel of your breasts and see your doctor promptly if you notice any changes.
- See your doctor for a regular breast examination and ask about the value of a mammogram (an x-ray of the breast) as part of your regular breast screening if you’re at increased risk.
- If you are over 50, make sure to have a mammogram every two years.
- Breast screening (mammography) is free through BreastScreen Australia, to all women over 40.
If you’re between 50 and 69 you should have a mammogram every two years, even if you don’t have any symptoms of breast cancer. Women aged 40-49 and those over 70 are also eligible for free screening, but are not actively recruited by BreastScreen. Talk to your doctor or call BreastScreen in your state for an appointment.
Get to know your breasts
Become familiar with the natural shape and feel of your own breasts, so you can be aware of any changes that may occur.
- Look for any changes in the size and shape of your breasts, skin colour, the way your breasts feel, or the sudden appearance of a raised thickening or lump in your breast or armpit.
- Check for any changes in your nipples, especially when you stretch your arm or chest muscles. Look to see whether your nipples have begun to turn inwards or point in a different direction. Check for rashes, soreness or any bloodstained liquid coming from your nipples.
- It’s common to feel some pain in your breasts during your period, but take notice of pain that’s only occurring in one area, or different to what you normally experience.
- Most lumps and changes are not cancer but if you notice a change in your breasts, talk to your doctor as soon as possible.
Reducing your risk
You can reduce your risk of breast cancer by:
- Eating more vegetables, fruit and whole grains
- Reducing your total fat intake, especially animal fats
- Limiting your alcohol intake to two drinks per day
- Maintaining a healthy body weight
- Quitting smoking
- Increasing physical activity.
A recent study in the USA found moderate physical activity over the course of your life can significantly reduce your risk of developing breast cancer. The study also found that a lower body mass index (BMI) can reduce your risk. Of the women who participated in the study, those with a BMI of less than 25, combined with a high level of physical activity, were 31% less likely to develop breast cancer after menopause than more sedentary, overweight women.
Information adapted from the Cancer Council Australia.