Breast cancer: early diagnosis is the key

The good news is that with advances in treatment and diagnosis, more women are surviving breast cancer than ever before. These days, about 88 per cent of women diagnosed with breast cancer will be alive 5 years on.

You will probably never develop breast cancer — but if you do, finding it early will increase your chances of effective treatment.

What should I look for?

Look for any changes in your breasts that are not normal for you. Breast cancer is usually first noticed as a painless or painful lump anywhere in the breast or under the arm.

Occasionally, its symptoms may not be very noticeable and may include:

  • redness or hardness in the breast;
  • breast pain;
  • changes to the shape of the nipple or breast;
  • itchy nipple;
  • bloody discharge from the nipple; or
  • changes in the skin overlying the breast, making it resemble the skin of an orange, or a change in colour.

Despite the good news for survival, each year in Australia more than 12,000 women are still diagnosed with breast cancer and about 2700 die from breast cancer.

The earlier breast cancer is found, the more likely it can be successfully treated. If you notice any changes to your breasts, you should see your doctor as soon as possible. While most breast changes are not due to cancer, it is important to check.

BreastScreen Australia states that regular 2-yearly mammograms are the best way for women aged 50-69 to detect breast cancer early, which improves the chances of successful treatment and recovery. BreastScreen Australia provides free screening mammograms to all women aged over 40 years, and specifically targets women aged 50-69 years.

What are the risk factors for breast cancer?

The risk of developing breast cancer is increased with the following factors.

  • Being a woman — while it is possible for men to get breast cancer, it is 100 times more common in women.
  • Age.
  • Early onset of menstruation (before the age of 12).
  • Late menopause (after the age of 55).
  • A family history of breast or ovarian cancer, especially for mothers, daughters and sisters of women with breast cancer prior to menopause.
  • A proven genetic mutation (BRCA1 or BRCA2).
  • Having ever had breast cancer.
  • Having been previously diagnosed with a non-invasive breast condition such as ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) or lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS).
  • Exposure to radiation.
  • Drinking alcohol every day, especially more than two standard drinks.
  • Putting on excess weight as an adult, especially if gained after the menopause.
  • Women whose mothers took the medicine DES (diethylstilboestrol) during pregnancy have an increased risk of breast cancer. (The mothers who took DES have a much smaller increased risk of breast cancer.)
  • Taking combination hormone replacement therapy (oestrogen and progesterone) for 5 or more years.
  • Taking the oral contraceptive pill slightly increases your risk, although the risk levels return to normal within 10 years of stopping the pill.

Is there anything that can reduce my risk of breast cancer?

There are some things that are thought to be protective against breast cancer, including:

  • getting regular physical activity (studies have shown that brisk walking for 1.5 to 4 hours per week reduces breast cancer risk in postmenopausal women);
  • having children (the more children women have, the more their risk appears to be reduced);
  • having children before the age of 30; and
  • breast feeding for a total of 12 months or longer.

Why does early diagnosis make a difference?

Breast cancer begins with changes in some of the cells in the breast. As the cancer grows, some of the cells may spread from the breast to other parts of the body.

If the cancer cells are only in the breast and have not spread to other parts of the body, it is likely they can be completely removed and not be a threat to your life.

When breast cancer is found early, before it has spread, women have a much greater chance of successful treatment and more treatment choices.

Last Reviewed: 10 April 2009
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References

National Breast and Ovarian Cancer Centre. Statistics and research: breast cancer statistics in Australia [updated 2008, Oct; accessed 2009, Jul 17]. Available at: http://www.nbocc.org.au/bestpractice/statistics/

National Breast and Ovarian Cancer Centre. Risk factors [updated 2009, Jul 9; accessed 2009, Jul 17]. Available at: http://www.nbocc.org.au/risk/riskfactors.html

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW). Cancer Australian cancer incidence statistics update, December 2008. Available from: http://www.aihw.gov.au/cancer/index.cfm
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