What is breast cancer?
Breast cancer is a group of abnormal cells which continues to grow and multiply. Eventually these cells may form a lump in the breast. If the cancer is not removed or controlled the cancer cells can spread to other parts of the body and may eventually cause death.
Breast cancer is the most common life threatening cancer in Australian women and cannot be prevented. Women in Australia have a 1 in 7 risk of developing breast cancer in their lifetime. About 200 women in Western Australia die from breast cancer each year.
Breast cancer can also develop in men, but this is rare. Male breast cancer accounts for about 1% of all breast cancers.
Are all breast lumps cancer?
No, 90% of breast lumps found are benign and quite harmless, that is, are NOT breast cancer.
What causes breast cancer?*
We do not know what causes breast cancer. Some risk factors identified as increasing your chances of developing breast cancer include:
- being a woman 50 years or over;
- having a strong family history of breast cancer;
- having previously been diagnosed with breast cancer; and
- women under 40 years of age having radiotherapy for lymphoma.
Other factors that seem to slightly increase a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer include:
- starting menstruation or ‘periods’, at a relatively early age (before 12 years);
- starting menopause or ‘change of life’, at a relatively late age (after 55 years);
- not having children, or having a first child after 30 years of age;
- not breastfeeding – the more months spent breastfeeding, the lower the risk of developing breast cancer;
- taking combined Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) after menopause, especially when taken for 5 years or longer;
- putting on a lot of weight in adulthood, especially after menopause;
- drinking alcohol (more than 2 standard drinks a day); and
- having previously been diagnosed with lobular carcinoma in situ or atypical hyperplasia in the breast.
Having one or more of these risk factors does not mean that a woman will definitely develop breast cancer, but it might increase her chance of developing breast cancer. Some women with one or more risk factors might never develop the disease.
*Adapted from Breast Cancer Risk Factors - a review of the evidence,
July 2009, National Breast and Ovarian Cancer Centre.
What should I be aware of?
Breast changes. Breasts come in all shapes and sizes and will change throughout your life. Your menstrual cycle, pregnancy, age and weight may alter the size, shape and feel of your breasts. Get to know your own breasts so that you will know what is normal for you.
You should see your GP promptly about the following important changes:
- A lump, lumpiness or thickening in the breast or armpit.
- Changes in the skin of the breast such as dimpling, puckering or redness.
- Changes in the nipple such as inversion, new nipple discharge, itchy or ulcerated skin.
- An area of the breast that feels different from the rest.
- New persistent breast pain.
Look in the mirror at your breasts and feel your breasts from time to time.
When should I have a screening mammogram?
BreastScreen WA provides FREE screening mammograms to women 40 years or over with no breast symptoms, and specifically targets women aged 50 to 74 years.
BreastScreen WA encourages women aged 50 to 74 years to have a FREE screening mammogram every two years. The benefit from having a screening mammogram every two years is greatest for women in this age group. Over 75 per cent of breast cancers occur in women over 50 years of age.
Women under 40 years are not eligible to attend a screening mammogram at BreastScreen WA. Young women under 40 years have much denser breast tissue than older women, so it is more difficult for screening mammograms to show the changes that may indicate cancer.
What is a screening mammogram?
A screening mammogram is a low dose X-ray of a woman’s breast. Screening mammograms are performed on women 40 years or over with no breast symptoms, for the purpose of detecting breast cancer at an early stage before it can be felt or noticed. Screening mammograms can detect 70-90% of breast cancers and is the only proven means of detecting cancers at this early stage. Generally the earlier a cancer is detected, the better the chance of successful treatment.
How often should I have a mammogram?
Every two years. Remember, once is not enough. Regular screening mammograms every two years assists in detecting any new changes in your breasts at an early stage.
Healthy WA OR Cancer Australia includes information about:
- living with breast cancer
- breast cancer types
- treatment options
- care after treatment