Breast Cancer – The Signs and Symptoms
Breast cancer is the most common form of cancer, affecting around 46,000 women each year in the UK alone. Whilst this figure is high, it does mean that awareness is equally high, and as a result, many women check their breasts for tell tale signs on a regular basis.
The reality of breast cancer can be, at worst, life threatening, and at best, life changing. However, as it is such a common form of cancer, there is a lot of information about it and as a result, GPs and consultants are experienced in diagnosing and treating it.
The dreaded ‘c’ word
Research carried out by Cancer Research UK, has revealed that cancer is the most feared of all serious illnesses, even more so than heart disease and Alzheimer’s. Women in particular have cited the fear of suffering from breast cancer as coming second only to brain cancer with a percentage putting it at the top of their most feared list.
As with all forms of cancer, early detection means that there is a higher chance of successfully treating it, and although it is still a very much feared disease, many women do go on to have a full recovery.
Positive facts about breast cancer:
- Breast cancer can be easy to detect.
- Awareness campaigns mean that many women are familiar with the warning signs.
- Early detection means that it is easier to treat.
- The survival statistics of patients who have recovered from breast cancer are high.
Who is at risk of developing breast cancer?
The cold hard facts, according to the NHS, is that breast cancer is the most prevalent form of cancer in the UK. Women of all ages can develop breast cancer, and the risk becomes higher the older you are.
Even though breast cancer is most commonly found in women, men can also suffer from it. It is much rarer in men, (350 men a year in the UK being diagnosed) but it is still important for men to be vigilant and check their chest area just in case. Men’s breast cancer can also be very serious and is treated in the same way as it is for women.
In some extreme cases, women with a strong family history of breast cancer and who are proven to be at a very high risk, undergo preventative surgery as a precaution.
Is breast cancer fatal?
The good news is, breast cancer survival statistics are high and 80% of women now survive their breast cancer for five or years or more.
What causes breast cancer?
There is no hard and fast rule as to who will be most at risk of developing breast cancer. There isn’t any proven trigger that is known to bring on the illness, however there are certain lifestyle choices that may contribute to making an individual more vulnerable. These include:
- Drinking alcohol. The more you drink, the higher your chances are of developing breast cancer. This is particularly relevant for pre-menopausal women.
- Being overweight or obese. Even more so, if obesity occurs later in life.
- Not being physically active.
- Combination hormone therapy. If used for more than 3-5 years it can increase the risk of breast cancer.
- Radiation and environmental pollution. In particular, over exposure to medical-imaging methods.
- Not breast feeding. Breast feeding is linked to breast cancer prevention, so, given the choice, opting not to breast feed may put you more at risk.
It goes without saying that healthy living will help keep illness at bay. But whilst there are certain lifestyle choices that can affect the probability of a person developing breast cancer, unfortunately many women who live perfectly healthy lives can still find out that they have developed the cancer.
How do I check for breast cancer?
Routinely checking your breasts for lumps or signs or anything unusual is the best way to detect the early signs of breast cancer. You can carry out simple monthly checks of the breasts yourself, according to the charity Breakthrough Breast Awareness, ‘it’s as easy as TLC’…
|TOUCH your breasts. Can you feel anything unusual?||LOOK for any changes in the shape and texture.||CHECK anything unusual with your doctor.|
The following tips will help make your routine checks as easy and effective as possible:
- Before beginning to check your breasts for any irregularities or lumps, it is important to know how your breasts normally feel and how they look. This way any abnormalities can be easily spotted by you and taken to a GP for further examination.
- Carrying out regular checks on your breasts will make it easier for you to detect any changes.
- Many women report that their breasts feel differently at different times of the month. For example, breasts can be more tender around the time of a woman’s menstrual period, which is worth taking into consideration when pinpointing changes.
- When checking breasts, some women find it easier to undergo a thorough check in the bath or shower. Running a soapy hand over the armpit and breast area with a flat palm can be a good way of making sure every area is covered.
- To examine every angle of the breast it can be useful to move your arm around for extra coverage. Looking at your breasts in the mirror can also outline any obvious visual changes.
What are the symptoms of breast cancer?
The signs and symptoms to look out for when checking your breasts include:
- Unusual thickening of the breast tissue.
- Puckering or dimpling of the skin around the breast.
- Nipple discharge (that isn’t milky).
- Bleeding from the nipple.
- Changes in the position of the nipple.
- Nipples pointing differently to usual.
- Pain in the breast or around the armpit.
- A rash around the nipple.
- Changes in the size and/or shape of the breast.
One of the first signs that women may notice when performing a check could be a lump. Thankfully, most lumps examined are benign, which means that they are not cancerous. Many of these lumps turn out to be cysts. However, it’s always a good idea to have a cyst checked by a GP to make sure that it is benign and to have treatment if necessary.
I’ve found an abnormality on my breast, what now?
If you spot anything that isn’t quite normal with your breast you should get it checked out as soon as possible by your GP to be on the safe side. It may well be a benign lump or a cyst, and therefore, nothing to worry about, but unless you get a second opinion from a medical professional you will not be able to tell.
Having a mammogram can be the most effective way of checking if everything is normal with your breasts, and if there is an abnormality such as a lump the mammogram will be able to determine whether it is benign or not.
Mammograms are performed routinely on the NHS for older women, however the procedure is readily available to check patients of any age as a simple referral from your GP or private consultant.
In the event where breast cancer is detected, in most cases, it will be treated as soon as possible, to prevent it from spreading further. Your consultant will be able to advise you on the type of treatment you will need depending on the type and severity of breast cancer that you have developed.
How is breast cancer treated?
Every woman’s individual circumstances are different and therefore, treatment will vary accordingly. The stage of the cancer will determine the type of treatment that is necessary. The following points outline how the treatment may progress according to the severity of the illness.
- In some cases, the lump can simply be removed if it is small and in the early stages.
- Women usually have to have a mastectomy when a lump is large (particularly in a small breast), or more than one area of the breast is affected with cancer or the patient has large area of pre-cancerous ductal cancer in situ.
- In drastic cases, a lumpectomy will cut off the lump at its source, but many cases do not come to that.
What are the different types of breast cancer?
There are many different types of breast cancer that women (and men) can develop in their lifetime. The four most common types are:
- Invasive ductal breast cancer
- Invasive lobular breast cancer
- Ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS)
- Lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS)
|Type of breast cancer||Description|
|Invasive ductal breast cancer||One of the most common types of breast cancer found in women is the invasive ductal breast cancer. Between 70-80% of all cancersare diagnosed this type. This type of cancer starts in the cells that line the ducts of the breasts, and has spread into the surrounding breast tissue. There are many treatments that doctors offer to remove the cancer and prevent it from developing again – the most common being a mastectomy (removal of the entire breast)and then some course of after treatment, such as radiotherapy or/and chemotherapy. Hormone therapy is also offered to again reduce the chances of the cancer returning.|
|Invasive lobular breast cancer||Invasive lobular breast canceris another type of breast cancer, however it usually only is diagnosed in 1 out of 10 women who have developed breast cancer (10%). This is where the cancer has started in the cells that line the lobules of the breast, and has spread beyond the lobules into the surrounding breast tissue. Invasive lobular breast cancer does not always show up on x-rays or mammograms, and is not usually a firm lump, so can be difficult to diagnose. This type of cancer affects women in middle age – around 45-55 years old.|
|Ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS)||Another type of breast cancer is ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS). DCIS is a pre-invasive, invasive or intraductal cancer where the cells inside some of the ducts of your breast have started to turn into cancer cells. The cells have not started to spread into the breast tissue, which means there is a lower chance that the cancer has spread into the person’s lymph nodes and other parts of the body. The main option to remove this cancer is surgery – while some women only have part of the tissue removed, many have a mastectomy to reduce the chances of the cells spreading.|
|Lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS)||Linking to DCIS is lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS). This is where there are cell changes in the breast lobes, and while this is not cancer, there is a higher chance of the cells becoming cancerous in the future. Men can also develop LCIS, however this is usually very rare. While the chances of getting breast cancer when LCIS is developed are low, women who have had these cell changes often opt for more frequent mammograms (every 1 to 2 years) and more frequent breast examination (every 6-12 months).|
Less common types of breast cancer
There are many more types of breast cancer, however they are much rarer than the types mentioned above, and very few women develop them. Examples of less common types of cancer include:
Medullary breast cancer
Medullary breast cancer is common in women who inherit a faulty copy of the BRCA 1 gene.
Inflammatory breast cancer
Inflammatory breast cancer is highlighted by reddening and swelling of the breast instead of a distinct cancerous lump.
Beating breast cancer and moving forward
After the initial shock of being diagnosed with cancer, and the subsequent treatment, many women go on to have a very successful recovery. Once the relief of actually beating the cancer has subsided, however, the reality of their experience can be quite hard hitting for some women, especially if their treatment involved a full or partial mastectomy.
Having to have their breasts removed or their appearance altered as a result of surgery can have devastating emotional effects on some women, not to mention the negative impact it can have on their self-esteem. It is important that emotional support is readily available at this time, as it can be a particularly traumatic experience for many women.
Reconstructive cosmetic surgery is an option for women who have undergone a mastectomy. This means that the breast can be rebuilt after having a mastectomy or, in some cases, during the same operation. Knowing that they will regain their breasts as a result of reconstructive surgery, can give women who are suffering from breast cancer the hope that their bodies will return to normal after having successful cancer treatment.