Breast cancer (female) 


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If you're concerned about your risk of developing inherited breast cancer, you can use Macmillan's online interactive assessment tool, known as OPERA (Online Personal Education and Risk Assessment).

OPERA is based on the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) guidelines for the classification and care of women at risk of familial breast cancer.

The tool can be used to assess a person's risk of developing the condition based on their family history of breast cancer and ovarian cancer. This is because the genes that are mainly responsible for breast cancer are also linked to ovarian cancer.

Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer in the UK.

In 2011, just under 50,000 women were diagnosed with invasive breast cancer. Most women who get it (8 out of 10) are over 50, but younger women, and in rare cases, men, can also get breast cancer.

If it's treated early enough, breast cancer can be prevented from spreading to other parts of the body.

The breasts

The breasts are made up of fat, connective tissue and thousands of tiny glands called lobules, which produce milk. When a woman has a baby, the milk is delivered to the nipple through tiny tubes called ducts, which allow her to breastfeed.

The body is made up of billions of tiny cells, which usually grow and multiply in an orderly way. New cells are only produced when and where they're needed. In cancer, this orderly process goes wrong and cells begin to grow and multiply uncontrollably.

Read more about the causes of breast cancer.

Symptoms of breast cancer

Breast cancer can have a number of symptoms, but the first noticeable symptom is usually a lump or area of thickened breast tissue.

Most breast lumps aren't cancerous, but it's always best to have them checked by your doctor. You should also see your GP if you notice any of the following:

  • a change in the size or shape of one or both breasts
  • discharge from either of your nipples (which may be streaked with blood)
  • a lump or swelling in either of your armpits
  • dimpling on the skin of your breasts
  • a rash on or around your nipple
  • a change in the appearance of your nipple, such as becoming sunken into your breast

Breast pain isn't usually a symptom of breast cancer.

Learn more about the symptoms of breast cancer.

After examining your breasts, your GP may refer you to a specialist breast cancer clinic for further tests. This might include a mammography or a biopsy.

Read more about how breast cancer is diagnosed.

Types of breast cancer

There are several different types of breast cancer, which can develop in different parts of the breast. Breast cancer is often divided into non-invasive and invasive types.

Non-invasive breast cancer

Non-invasive breast cancer is also known as cancer or carcinoma in situ. This cancer is found in the ducts of the breast and hasn't developed the ability to spread outside the breast.

This form of cancer rarely shows as a lump in the breast that can be felt, and is usually found on a mammogram (see below). The most common type of non-invasive cancer is ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS).

Invasive breast cancer

Invasive cancer has the ability to spread outside the breast, although this doesn't necessarily mean it has spread.

The most common form of breast cancer is invasive ductal breast cancer, which develops in the cells that line the breast ducts. Invasive ductal breast cancer accounts for about 80% of all breast cancer cases and is sometimes called "no special type".

Other types of breast cancer

Other less common types of breast cancer include invasive lobular breast cancer, which develops in the cells that line the milk-producing lobules, inflammatory breast cancer and Paget's disease of the breast.

It's possible for breast cancer to spread to other parts of the body, usually through the lymph nodes (small glands that filter bacteria from the body) or the bloodstream. If this happens, it's known as "secondary" or "metastatic" breast cancer.

Breast cancer screening

About 1 in 9 women are affected by breast cancer during their lifetime. There's a good chance of recovery if it's detected in its early stages. For this reason, it's vital that women check their breasts regularly for any changes and always get any changes examined by their GP.

Mammographic screening (where X-ray images of the breast are taken) is the best available method of detecting an early breast lesion. However, you should be aware that a mammogram might fail to detect some breast cancers. It might also increase your chances of having extra tests and interventions, including surgery.

Women with a higher-than-average risk of developing breast cancer may be offered screening and genetic testing for the condition.

As the risk of breast cancer increases with age, all women who are 50-70 years old are invited for breast cancer screening every three years.

Women over 70 are also entitled to screening and can arrange an appointment through their GP or local screening unit.

The NHS Breast Cancer Screening Programme is currently being extended to women aged 47-73.

Find breast cancer screening services near you.

Treating breast cancer

If cancer is detected at an early stage, it can be treated before it spreads to nearby parts of the body.

Breast cancer is treated using a combination of surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Surgery is usually the first type of treatment you'll have, followed by chemotherapy or radiotherapy or, in some cases, hormone or biological treatments.

The type of surgery and the treatment you have afterwards will depend on the type of breast cancer you have. Your doctor will discuss the best treatment plan with you.

In a small proportion of women, breast cancer is discovered after it's spread to other parts of the body (metastasis). Secondary cancer, also called advanced or metastatic cancer, isn't curable, so the aim of treatment is to achieve remission (symptom relief).

Read more about treating breast cancer.

Preventing breast cancer

As the causes of breast cancer aren't fully understood, it's not possible to know if it can be prevented altogether.

If you're at increased risk of developing the condition, some treatments are available to reduce the risk.

Studies have looked at the link between breast cancer and diet and, although there are no definite conclusions, there are benefits for women who maintain a healthy weight, exercise regularly and who have a low intake of saturated fat and alcohol.

It's been suggested that regular exercise can reduce your risk of breast cancer by as much as a third. If you've been through the menopause, it's particularly important that you're not overweight or obese. This is because being overweight or obese causes more oestrogen to be produced, which can increase the risk of breast cancer.

Read more about preventing breast cancer.

Living with breast cancer

Being diagnosed with breast cancer can affect daily life in many ways, depending on what stage it's at and what treatment you're having.

How women cope with their diagnosis and treatment varies from person to person. You can be reassured that there are several forms of support available, if you need it. For example:

  • your family and friends can be a powerful support system
  • you can communicate with other people in the same situation
  • find out as much as possible about your condition
  • don't try to do too much or overexert yourself
  • make time for yourself

Read more about living with breast cancer.

Page last reviewed: 19/08/2014

Next review due: 19/08/2016


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The 10 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

Snow Cat said on 02 May 2014

what seems to be coming through at the moment as the highest food risk factors are gluten products, sugar, and saturated fat;things like buscuits (wheat, sugar and saturated fat) and hard cheeses (dairy products and saturated fat) are things which seem to be the main problem.

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Snow Cat said on 10 March 2014

Generally speaking the chances of getting this disease seems to increase with age. I think the cause can be narrowed down to the following:-
1. A diet which is high in saturated fat derived from an animal source;
2. A lack of exercise;
3. Wheat gluten;
4. Radiation from non-natural sources, such as from televisions and computers.
I think anything else can be discounted.

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Snow Cat said on 21 January 2014

Things which might increase the risk are foods which contain fat which is solid or semi-solid at room temperature, high levels of saturated fat in the diet (including sources from vegetable saturates), caffeine, refined sugar, dairy products, gluten, chemicals in food such as pesticides or cleaning agents, stress, being outside, things like computers.

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totalfitvic said on 10 October 2013

I'm 30 and for the past 12 months I've had scans on the lymph nodes in my neck which are still growing in number/size but have yet to be told why as im waiting for an appointment with the haematology team.
6 months ago I noticed my nipple change shape which my gp said was not a concern. I noticed a hardening and again a gp told me it was no concern. My right breast has now changed shape and significantly increased in size- my right nipple is now 5cms lower than my left nipple. I have a constant ache/pain and below my nipple is cold to touch and feels numb.
I had never thought there could be a link between my lymph node problem and my breast until I saw a picture on facebook and immediately recognised all the breast symptoms so booked an appointment with my gp (3 week wait) which I managed to get sooner. The gp said I could not be sent to screening or further investigations because even though she could see all my symptoms she said she couldn't feel a lump. My bra size is a 36HH so it is difficult to examine my breasts but I definitely feel a lump and I know my breast has changed so much that something is wrong but what can I do now? Ive booked another appointment with a different gp but the next appointment is in 25 days!! Ive contacted a private hospital and they will see me immediately and do all tests the same day but I dont have the money that this will cost. What should I do?

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Jaded Realist said on 13 June 2013

I had a reconstructive surgery done 4 months after my mastectomy last January. The new breast encapsulated ( hardened like a rock) and therefore due to the unbearable pain factor decided to have it removed in August 2012. I wish another reconstruction [breast ] as i hate looking at an empty sac but the 'female' surgeon, who may I remark is as cold and emotionless as her scalpel 'refuses to go there!!!!' Is this entirely fair? Can I change surgeons to a more empathetic one, if such a thing exists on the NHS & demand my rights? Grateful for a response.....

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berryj said on 22 May 2013

Breast cancer is one of the kinds of cancer that has to be healed immediately after it's detection otherwise it can show fatal. Essentially, cancer is actually disease where the cells from the body will get damaged as well as abnormally begins growing. Malignant cells contained in the body type a mass and that's called as tumor and these tumours begin growing within numbers as well as damage the actual healthy condition of the body. So people should know all the information regarding breast cancer.

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000 said on 11 January 2013

The attitude of GP's concerning breast screening is just appalling and so ignorant. I have to go to France where my family live to get it done and it costs me a lot of money. I'm 37 years old and when I talk to doctors in France about this stupid idea of checking women for breast cancer only when they are 50 they hardly believe me and they always ask me in which century they're living in. They let people suffer, they let the cancer develop to tell you one day, we can't help you or the tablets are too expensive. That's unethical and they play with people lives, that is purely disgusting for a country like the UK who is always proud of showing their economic power, their health system is shameful.

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carenlee said on 10 August 2012

Breast Cancer is very common among women. I just want to know is there any age factor for this cancer?

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MsJustice said on 08 February 2011

?25% of breast cancer contained a new human retrovirus called XMRV.
178 cases of breast cancer were examined for the presence of XMRV. Approximately 25% of breast cancers contained either XMRV proviral DNA sequences or XMRV proteins. The XMRV proteins were seen exclusively in the malignant breast epithelium.
Study by Singh.

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Skyecastle said on 24 January 2011

You wait till a woman is fifty?! Statistics show that there is a huge upsurge of woman in their 20s getting breast cancer. I feel any woman that notices a change and montly lumps feel differently (give us credit for knowing our bodies), should be able to get a mammogram and ultrasound to be absolutely sure. Its our lives you are playing with.

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