Breast cancer doesn’t discriminate

Breast cancer affects both men and women

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Around one in eight women develop breast cancer at some stage in their lives and about 55,000 people are diagnosed with breast cancer each year, including around 360 men. It's the most common cancer in women.

Breast cancer is cancer that starts in the breast tissue. Most cases occur in women over the age of 50 but breast cancer can occur in younger women. In rare cases, men can also be diagnosed with breast cancer.

Breast cancer develops from a cancerous (malignant) cell, which develops in the lining of a duct or lobule in one of the breasts.

What are the symptoms?

  • The first symptom of breast cancer for many women may be a lump in their breast. But most breast lumps are not cancerous. If you do spot a lump, however, see your doctor straight away.
  • Your breast may look bigger or have a different shape than usual. It might feel different. Many healthy women find that their breasts feel lumpy and tender before their period.
  • Breast pain is very common and it’s not normally due to cancer. You might get pain in one or both breasts for a while or under your arm. There might be no obvious reason for this pain, even if you have a lot of tests.
  • Skin changes include puckering, dimpling, a rash, or redness of the skin of the breast.
  • Change in the position of your nipple: one nipple might turn in or sink into the breast. It might look or feel different to usual.
  • Fluid leaking from a nipple in a woman who isn't pregnant or breast feeding can be a sign of cancer. However, it can also be caused by other medical conditions.

See the infographic. Speak your doctor if you have any of these symptoms.

What are the risk factors?

  • Being overweight or obese: women who are overweight after their menopause have a higher risk of breast cancer than women who are not overweight. Men also have an increased risk of breast cancer if they are overweight or obese.
  • Drinking alcohol increases the risk of breast cancer. The risk increases with each extra unit of alcohol per day.
  • There is a very small increased risk of breast cancer when you take the contraceptive pill. This increase in risk goes back to normal ten years after you stop taking it.
  • HRT increases the risk of breast cancer while women take it and for up to five years afterwards. Combined HRT (oestrogen and progesterone) is more likely to cause breast cancer than oestrogen-only HRT.
  • There is a small increase risk of breast cancer if you’re inactive, this means doing less than the recommended 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week.

There are also factors that you cannot change. These include getting older, family history and inherited genes and other medical conditions.

For more information see breast cancer risk factors.

How is breast cancer diagnosed?

If you develop a lump or symptoms that may be breast cancer, a doctor will usually examine your breasts and armpits to look for any lumps or other changes. You will normally be referred to a specialist. Sometimes a biopsy of an obvious lump is arranged, but other tests may be done first such as:

  • Mammogram: this is an X-ray of the breast tissue.
  • Ultrasound scan of the breast: this is more commonly performed on younger women, who may have denser breast tissue.

Treatment for breast cancer

Your treatment depends on where your cancer is, how big it is, whether it has spread anywhere else in your body, and your general health. A team of doctors and other professionals decide on the best treatment and care for you. It can include surgery, chemotherapy, hormone therapy, radiotherapy or targeted cancer drugs. For more information see breast cancer treatment.

Women in the UK aged between 50 and 70 are invited to have a routine mammography, every three years. This is gradually being extended to women aged 47-73.

Breast screening

Women in the UK aged between 50 and 70 registered with a GP are invited to have a routine mammography, every three years. This is gradually being extended to women aged 47 to 73.

Most experts agree that regular breast screening is beneficial in identifying breast cancer early. The earlier the condition is found, the better the chances are of surviving it.

What is breast screening?

Breast screening is carried out at special clinics or mobile breast screening units. The procedure is carried out by female members of staff who take mammograms.

During screening, your breasts will be X-rayed one at a time. The breast is placed on the X-ray machine and gently but firmly compressed with a clear plate. Two X-rays are taken of each breast at different angles.

After your breasts have been X-rayed, the mammogram will be checked for any abnormalities. The results of the mammogram will be sent to you and your GP, usually no later than two weeks after your appointment. Following screening, about one in 25 women will be called back for further assessment.

Being called back doesn't mean you definitely have cancer; the first mammogram may simply have been unclear. About one in four women who are called back for further assessment are diagnosed with breast cancer.

Watch the breast screening video

Take a look