In 2020, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare estimates that a total of 19,998 Australian women and 170 Australian men will be diagnosed with breast cancer.

That’s roughly 55 Australians who will receive a new diagnosis each day.

The positive news is that most people survive breast cancer and go on to live long, happy lives.

The five-year survival rate for women diagnosed with breast cancer is 90.1%. Improvements in survival are attributed to earlier detection of breast cancer through regular mammograms, regular self-examinations and improved treatment outcomes for breast cancer. The chance of surviving at least 10 years is now 83%.

While many people have heard of breast cancer, because it is one of the most common cancers in women, let’s dive a little deeper into what it is, risk factors and treatment options.

What is breast cancer?
Breast cancer is the abnormal growth of cells lining the breast lobules (milk-producing glands) and breast ducts (passages that drain milk from the lobules towards the nipple). Sometimes it can also begin in the fatty and fibrous tissue of the breast. The breast cancer cells grow uncontrollably and over time can spread into surrounding breast tissue. This is called ‘invasive breast cancer’ and has the potential to spread to other parts of the body.

Breast cancer is not one disease. There are different types and subtypes of disease that are referred to as breast cancer.

There are non-invasive breast cancers where the abnormal cells haven’t left the ducts or lobules of the breast and invasive where they have spread outside of these. There are different types of both forms of breast cancer and also sub types of these.

The main sub types are hormone receptor positive, HER2 positive, and triple negative breast cancer. These sub types are what guide the treatment that is recommended to you.

There are different stages of breast cancer according to how far the cancer has spread, 0 being non invasive and stage 4 is where the cancer has left the breast and spread around the body and is called metastatic breast cancer. Breast cancers are also graded as to how fast the cells replicate 1 being slow- 3 (high grade) being more aggressive.  All these factors dictate the treatment and the risk of the cancer coming back again.

What are some of the risk factors for breast cancer?

There are certain risk factors for developing breast cancer, which include;

  • Being a woman
  • Getting older
  • Inheriting a faulty gene
  • Having a strong family history of breast cancer.

Are there any ways to prevent breast cancer?
Keeping fit, maintaining a healthy weight, minimising alcohol intake, having children before the age of 30 and breast-feeding for at least 12 months are things that may help protect you from developing breast cancer.

What are some warning signs?
Everyone’s breasts look and feel different. You may have lumpy breasts, one breast larger than the other, breasts that are different shapes, or one or both nipples that are inverted, which can be there from birth or happen when the breasts are developing.

Become familiar with the normal look and feel of your breasts. There’s no right or wrong way to check your breasts for any changes. Try to get used to looking at and feeling your breasts regularly. You can do this in the bath or shower, when you use body lotion, or when you get dressed. Just decide what you are comfortable with and what suits you best.

Remember to check all parts of your breast, your armpits and up to your collarbone.

When you check your breasts, try to be aware of any changes that are different for you.

Things to look for:

  • a new lump in your breast or armpit
  • thickening or swelling of part of your breast
  • irritation or dimpling of your breast skin
  • redness or flaky skin in your nipple area or your breast
  • pulling in of your nipple or pain in your nipple area
  • nipple discharge other than breast milk
  • any change in the size or the shape of your breast
  • pain in any area of your breast.

If you have any concerns, contact your GP.

Screening and breast awareness
Breast screening, otherwise known as a mammogram, is a low dose x-ray examination of the breasts. It can sometimes detect breast cancer before there are any signs or symptoms.

Women aged 40 and over are entitled to a free mammogram every two years. From age 50 to 74 years women are sent letters inviting them to have screening.

For those at increased risk, yearly mammography may be offered and for those at very high risk breast MRI may be available outside of the Breast Screen WA program.

Even with regular mammograms, any changes in the breasts should be reported to your doctor, as breast cancers can develop between mammograms.

Mammographic screening is less effective in the detection of breast cancer for women under 40 years of age however women of any age can get breast cancer – if you are in this age brackets and have you have any concerns, suspicious lumps or breast changes see your GP immediately.

Diagnosis and surgical options
Your GP will examine your breasts and refer you for a mammogram.

If any abnormality is detected you will be recalled to have another diagnostic mammogram and other screening if required, such as an ultra sound or MRI. The lesion may also be biopsied, this is known as the “triple test”.

Should you receive a positive diagnosis for breast cancer, you will be referred to a breast surgeon who will discuss your treatment options.

Breast cancer is treated in different ways. Your specialists will talk to you about which options are best suited to your individual needs.

The preferred option is breast conserving surgery which also involves sampling the sentinel node (the node closest to the lesion) which is also usually followed up with a course of radiotherapy, or a mastectomy. If you have a mastectomy you may be offered a reconstruction, which is usually performed at a later stage if you are requiring other treatments such as chemotherapy.

It may be that your case is discussed in a multi-disciplinary meeting where a team of specialists discuss the best course of treatment for you.

The members of your medical team that you may see could include:

  • surgeon
  • medical oncologist
  • radiation oncologist
  • breast care nurse
  • oncology nurse.

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