Breast Cancer

What is breast cancer?

Breast cancer is one of the most common cancers in women. It is most common in women over 50 years of age, though it can occur in men and younger women. Although there may be no symptoms in the early stages, some people may have a painless lump in the breast, skin changes on the breast, or discharge from the nipple. Screening (testing people with no symptoms) is important to diagnose breast cancer in the early stages. Breast cancer that is discovered early has a good chance of recovery and cure.

Risks

Breast cancer occurs when abnormal cells occur in the breast tissue and grow quickly and uncontrollably. These cells destroy and replace the normal breast tissue, and may spread through the body. Although men and younger women can develop this condition, breast cancer is most common in women who are older than 50 and people who have close relative who has either breast, uterine, or ovarian cancer. Genes have been discovered (BRCA-1 and BRCA-2) which can be inherited within families.

Symptoms

The most common symptom is a painless lump or mass in the breast. Some people may also notice lumps or swellings in the armpit on the same side as the breast lump. Other symptoms include thickening or puckering of the skin of the breast, a change in the shape of the nipple, or a rash over the nipple. Many people with early breast cancer will have no symptoms at all, so screening (testing people with no symptoms) is important.

Diagnosis

Diagnosis is usually made during mammography screening. Mammography is an X-ray of the breast. If a lump is seen at mammography or felt, a small sample of the lump is removed and tested to see if it is cancer. It might also be necessary to test the lymph nodes in the armpit to see if the cancer has spread.

Treatment

Treatment of breast cancer depends on the size of the cancer, the exact type of cancer and whether the cancer has spread. The combination of these factors decides the stage of the cancer. Depending on the stage, breast cancer can be treated by surgery, hormone therapy, radiotherapy and chemotherapy or a combination of these. The treating doctor can give the best advice as to treatment.

Prevention

Screening for breast cancer is the best method for prevention. Screening is important because it allows breast cancer to be detected and treated at an early stage, which improves the outlook for the affected person. If many people in one family have had breast, ovarian or uterine cancers, other women in the family can consider talking to a doctor about being tested for these genes and taking steps to avoid these cancers.