This month, along with people all over the world, we are showing support for those affected by breast cancer. It’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month and that means it’s the time to get involved and support breast cancer charities by campaigning, volunteering and fundraising. Y’all hear?
It’s also is an opportunity for us to educate and inform, with our very own Dr HANX. Read on to get the up to date information on all things breast cancer.
Breast cancer is a huge topic. There are many different types, with their own intricacies, lots of different ways to manage and treat these breast cancers, and continuous research into the disease. This blog only scratches the surface! But it is a good place to start, and we include a host of reference links that can educate and inform you even more. We hope this helps you as you strive to find out more. Let’s go!
Starting from the top, what is breast cancer?
Breast cancer is a disease where the cells in the breast grow out of control and abnormally. These abnormal cells divide and grow more quickly than the healthy cells, often creating a lump, and these cells can spread from your breast to other parts of the body.
There are different types of breast cancer, depending on whereabouts in the breast the cancer starts.
How common is breast cancer?
Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women in the UK, with around 1 in every 7 to 8 women having breast cancer within their lifetime and one woman diagnosed every 10 minutes. Around 55,000 women and 370 men are diagnosed with breast cancer each year in the UK.
What age do women get diagnosed with breast cancer?
Most women (around 80%) who are diagnosed with breast cancer are over 50 years old, but younger women can also get it. Around 4% of all breast cancers are in women under 40 years old.
Can men and people who identify as male get breast cancer?
It is rare for men to get breast cancer, but very possible so any abnormal signs, such as a breast lump, should not be ignored. Around 1 in 100 (roughly 1%) of breast cancer cases in the UK are in men.
Will I recover from breast cancer?
There is a good chance of recovery if breast cancer is detected early, which is why finding any signs or symptoms of breast cancer early and seeing a medical professional is essential.
Roughly 85% of women survive breast cancer for five years or more after being diagnosed.
Breast cancer survival rates are always improving, and over the last 4 decades, the improvements in treatment and early detection has doubled the survival rates.
However, the physical and emotional effects of having breast cancer and experiencing the treatments can be long-lasting. This is why the right support (we get onto that later) is so vital.
Breast cancer is the fourth most common cause of death from cancer in the UK, and the life expectancy depends on the type of cancer and the type of individual that has it.
What are the symptoms of breast cancer and how will I know if I have it?
There are many different symptoms of breast cancer, with some being more obvious than others. The most common and obvious one is a breast lump.
It’s important to note that most lumps in the breast are not cancer, but it’s always best to have them checked over by your doctor. Other causes of breast lumps include cysts, fatty deposits, bruising due to trauma, infections, and many others.
Other symptoms of breast cancer include a change in size or shape of your breast(s), dimples or puckering in the breast skin, nipple discharge or bleeding, armpit lumps, rashes around the breast or nipple, a change in your nipple shape, and pain (although this is an uncommon symptom of breast cancer).
The key thing here is to remember that if you’re feeling or seeing something abnormal for you or worried about anything related to your breasts, see you GP.
What causes breast cancer?
The exact cause of breast cancer is not fully known, but we do know some things that can increase your risk of getting breast cancer. This includes age, as often the older you get, the more likely you are to get breast cancer. If you have family members who have had breast cancer, this increases your risk of being diagnosed too. Other risk factors include being overweight or obese, drinking alcohol, and having previously had breast cancer or a breast lump.
Unfortunately, many factors, including your genes and some environmental factors, are things you cannot change. However, by staying fit and healthy, reducing your alcohol intake, and exercising regularly you can reduce your risk of breast cancer.
How is breast cancer diagnosed?
If you see your doctor with a lump in your breast or concerns you may have breast cancer, they will talk to you about any symptoms and your medical history, as well as completing a breast examination.
Your doctor may well refer you to a specialist breast cancer clinic for more tests, such as breast screening (called a mammography), other scans including MRIs and ultrasound scans, and they may also take a sample of the tissue in your breast (called a biopsy). This biopsy is then looked at by a specialist under the microscope to see whether any cancerous cells are present.
If you are diagnosed with breast cancer, you will be managed by a ‘multi-disciplinary team,’ which is a team of healthcare professionals meaning you have the necessary care and expertise.
What are the different types of breast cancer?
As discussed earlier, the types of cancer are categorised by where in the breast they started and which cells of the breast the cancer developed from.
Types of breast cancer are often categorised by the location, spread and types. The terminology is pretty medical, but here goes:
- Carcinoma in situ- this is non-invasive breast cancer that is found within the milk ducts or milk glands of the breasts, but not spread into the rest of the breast tissue. It can be defined as ductal carcinoma in situ (cancer cells are refined to the milk ducts) or lobular carcinoma in situ (cancer cells are refined to the lobules/ milk glands). Ductal carcinomas in situ are often found on mammography screening, but lobular carcinomas are more difficult to diagnose on mammography. Carcinomas in situ are highly treatable but, if left unnoticed, can spread into the surrounding breast tissue.
- Invasive carcinoma- this type of breast cancer can also be split up into “ductal” or “lobular” but invasive ductal carcinomas are the commonest type of breast cancer at diagnosis, with roughly 70-80% of breast cancers invasive ductal carcinomas. Invasive carcinomas are where the abnormal cancerous cells have spread from the ducts or lobules of the breast, and into the surrounding breast tissue. Occasionally these abnormal cells spread to other parts of the body, and this is called infiltrative ductal carcinoma.
- Triple-negative breast cancer- this is a type of breast cancer that tests negative for hormone receptors (including oestrogen, progesterone, and HER2 protein receptors, meaning we would not use hormonal therapies to treat it. This type of breast cancer accounts for 10-20% of all breast cancers, and tends to be more aggressive in nature. It is more common in women under 50 years old, black and Hispanic women, and those with a genetic mutation (known as BRCA mutations).
- Inflammatory breast cancer- this is an aggressive, fast-growing breast cancer that is reasonably rare. The abnormal cancer cells infiltrate the skin and lymph vessels of the breast.
- Metastatic breast cancer- also known as stage 4 or secondary breast cancer, this is where the cancer cells spread to other parts of the body. This often includes the lungs, liver, bones or brain.
- Other more rare types- These include medullary carcinomas (3-5% of all breast cancers), tubular carcinomas (around 2% of all breast cancers), mucinous (or colloid) carcinomas (1-2% of breast cancers), and Paget disease of the breast or nipple (1-2% of breast cancers).
What does “carcinoma” and “in situ” mean?
Carcinoma means “cancer” and in situ means “in the original place.” Carcinoma in situ are the earliest forms of cancer.
What is the difference between “ductal” and “lobular” carcinomas?
The ductal cancers originate within the breast milk ducts, and the lobular cancers originate within the lobules- the milk glands.
How is breast cancer treated?
The treatment of breast cancer is very dependent on the stage it is diagnosed, if it has spread to any other parts of your body, the type of cancer it is and type of cells involved, and your general health and wellbeing.
The management will be discussed with you, and individualised to suit your best interests. If your breast cancer is detected at an early stage it can be treated before spreading to any other parts of your body.
The treatment of breast cancers are often a combination of the following:
- Surgery- often the first treatment you will have to remove any cancerous cells in the breast and surrounding tissues.
- Chemotherapy- many people will have chemotherapy following their surgery.
- Radiotherapy- many people will have radiotherapy following their surgery.
- Hormone treatments- certain hormone therapies, such as tamoxifen, are used to treat hormone-sensitive breast cancers.
The type of surgery and treatments you have are dependent on the type of breast cancer you have, and this will be discussed in detail with you by your doctor.
Lobular breast cancers (those originating within the milk glands) are less likely to be picked up on mammograms, and are more likely to be hormone-sensitive. Hence, these cancers are often treated with hormone therapies.
If your cancer has spread to other parts of the body (known as metastatic breast cancer), then the management plan will use treatments to relieve symptoms.
How can we stop breast cancer?
More research needs to be done to understand breast cancer fully, and therefore work out how we can prevent it. However, some studies have reviewed how we can reduce our risk of breast cancer, and these include maintaining a healthy weight (especially if you’re post-menopausal), regular exercise, reduced alcohol and fatty food intake, and generally healthy lifestyle.
If you have an increased risk of developing the condition, such as genetic predisposition, then some treatments are available to reduce your risk.
It is also very important to have breast cancer screening, to pick up cancers at an early and treatable stage.
What happens at the screening for breast cancer?
Breast cancer screening is a process used to pick up cases of early breast cancer by taking x-ray images of the breast. This is called mammography.
Women between the ages of 50-70 in the UK are invited for breast cancer screening every 3 years in order to pick up any breast cancer at an early and treatable stage.
It is advisable to regularly check your breasts for lumps, roughly every month. This can easily be done in the shower, by the mirror or lying down in bed. If you feel anything abnormal, see your GP and they can refer you to have a mammography.
Are there any downsides to breast screening?
Mammography does not detect every single breast cancer, and can sometimes cause unnecessary worry, extra tests and interventions such as biopsies (sometimes even surgery) that were not needed.
About 8 in 10 breast lumps are not cancerous.
What about breast cancer screening for women over the age of 70?
You are still entitled to have continued mammography screening and can arrange this through your GP.
What if I am high risk for breast cancer?
You may be offered a screening for breast cancer, and some women have genetic testing for the condition if they have a family history of similar cancers. If you’re worried about breast cancer and your risk, speak to your doctor.
How do I get a breast cancer screening?
You can discuss breast cancer screening with your GP and screening services near you here.
What support is out there for people living with breast cancer?
There is a lot of support available to people who are diagnosed with breast cancer, are living through the treatments, or have a loved one who has breast cancer. It is a disease that can affect your life in many ways and support is essential.
Your doctor will help ensure you have the right support, including around you to support you in the ways you need, including explaining the condition you have and the treatments you’re having in detail. It helps many people to understand what’s going on to their body in this difficult time.
It’s important you surround yourself with your family and friends, and speak to other people who have been something similar.
Support groups can connect you with others who are going through a similar situation, have come out the other side and can offer advice, or have family members so can relate to what you’re going through.
It’s also important to make sure you have some time to yourself, and rest. It’s a tough thing to go through physically, emotionally and psychologically.
Great resources for information and support include:
What can I do to help raise awareness for breast cancer?
There are lots of ways to help raise awareness for breast cancer this month, and every day for that matter!
The main thing is to speak up, share educational blogs like this one and many others on your social media accounts, fundraise and donate to breast cancer charities, campaign, and encourage your family and friends to check their breast. See breast cancer now for fundraising, volunteering and campaigning ideas and join the conversation over on our HANX Life forum here.