Information on Breast Cancer:
The causes of breast cancer
It is now known that hereditary factors are responsible for a small percentage of the incidences of breast cancer. These are brought about by a faulty gene, which is passed on from one generation to the next. You should contact your doctor if you are concerned about this possibility.
The following factors have been known to indicate the possible presence of the inherited faulty gene, although this is not so in all cases:
- Breast cancer in several close family members,
- Other cancers, especially cancer of the colon or ovary, as well as breast cancer, in close family members,
- Breast cancer affecting both breasts of a close family member,
- Breast cancer in a close relative that is under 40 years of age.
Other factors that may slightly increase your risk of breast cancer include:
- Taking hormone replacement therapy (HRT) for ten years or more,
- Having no children or having children later in life,
- Having started your periods at a very young age or going through menopause late,
- Eating a diet with a high animal fat content.
The symptoms of breast cancer
The vast majority, (as much as 9 out of 10), of breast lumps are benign (non-cancerous) and can be easily treated. Quite often they are the result of cysts – which contain a build up of fluid in the breast tissue, or fibroadenomas – which are solid lumps or tumours made up of glandular and fibrous tissues.
In the vast majority of breast cancer cases, it is often discovered by the patient themselves as a lump in the breast – which just illustrates the value of breast self-examination.
However, in addition to palpable lumps in the breast, there are other signs to look out for:
- Breast: Change of shape or size, dimpling of the skin or exhibiting a lump or thickening.
- Nipple: Becoming inverted or turned in, exhibiting a lump or thickening, bloodstained discharge (very rare) or rash on nipple or surrounding area (also very rare).
- Arm: Swelling in armpit or axilla.
Breast cancer does not normally present itself as pain in your breast. In fact, some types of benign breast lumps can be uncomfortable and a lot of healthy women find their breasts feel lumpy and tender before a period.
Please consult your doctor immediately if you notice a lump in your breast. Even though most lumps are benign, anything unusual should always be examined to rule out the possibility of cancer. It is important to note that the sooner breast cancer is diagnosed, the greater the success rate of treatment.
Methods of diagnosis?
Currently, most breast tumours are initially detected by patients themselves. We cannot emphasise enough the value of breast self-examination and have even included instructions on how to conduct an examination as part of our cancer prevention section. Simply click here to go straight to the breast self-examination instructions.
Those lumps that are not picked up by the patients themselves are sometimes picked up by mammography.
Mammograms, or breast X-rays, can often detect cancer before it can be felt, and this is currently the most common method of screening. Mammograms are available every three years to all women aged 50 to 64 via the NHS, and to women over 64 years old upon request.
Although mammograms expose your breasts to ionising radiation, it is argued that the limited risk of these X-rays actually causing any harm is far outweighed by the benefits of detecting early breast cancer. However, recent research is calling into question this assertion.
Alternative screening methods that do not involve radiation, such as thermography, (heat sensitive photography), can pick up breast cancer as early as (if not earlier than) mammography and may be a method you should consider.
Remember that mammograms are not 100% accurate, as a small number of breast cancers are not detected by this technique. So if, despite having a mammogram which showed no cancer, you find a lump in your breast, please have it checked by your doctor immediately.
Your doctor will examine you and may refer you to your local hospital where you may undergo additional tests:
- The taking of your medical / family history,
- Physical examination – an examination of your breasts, feeling for any enlarged lymph glands under your arms or at the base of your neck.
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI or NMR scan),
- Ultrasound, and
- Colour doppler – a type of ultrasound that gives a colour picture, showing the blood supply to any detected lumps. This can often be used to distinguish between a malignant and a benign lump.
Further tests to determine the nature of a particular lump include:
- Needle aspiration,
- Needle biopsy and
- Excision biopsy.