Breast cancer is now the UK’s most common form of cancer, according to new figures released by Cancer Research UK. The charity has chosen to highlight the scale of the disease in the UK to coincide with World Cancer Day, and it estimates that one in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer at some point in her life.
The incidence of breast cancer appears to have grown by 50% in the past 25 years, with figures for 2008 showing that almost 47,700 UK women were diagnosed with it – this equates to around 130 diagnoses each day. However, while the number of cases has gone up over recent decades, the chances of surviving breast cancer have also greatly improved, with almost two out of three women alive 10 years after diagnosis – double the 10-year survival rate for patients diagnosed 40 years ago.
The Cancer Research UK report also includes other aspects of the disease such as global rates and the various lifestyle factors that can reduce or raise the risk. Because obesity is one of many risk factors for breast cancer it is incorrect to assert, as some newspapers have, that obesity, alcohol or delayed motherhood are solely to blame for the rising rates. The role of screening is also highlighted, with the NHS screening programme estimated to save 1,000 lives each year.
What is the risk of getting breast cancer?
Female breast cancer is reported to be the most common cancer in the UK, with around 47,000 new diagnoses a year. The cancer predominantly occurs in older women, with approximately 8 out of 10 cases occurring in women aged 50 or over. The report by Cancer Research UK estimates that:
- The lifetime risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer is one in eight for women in the UK.
- Female breast cancer incidence rates in Britain are increasing, and have increased by more than 50% over the last 25 years.
- In the last decade, female breast cancer incidence rates in the UK have increased by 3.5%.
What can raise or lower my breast cancer risk?
There are several factors, including preventable ones, that can affect your chances of developing breast cancer. These include:
- Family history: women with a mother, sister or daughter diagnosed with breast cancer have almost double the risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer themselves. A family history of ovarian cancer is also associated with increased risk of breast cancer.
- Weight: obesity increases the risk of postmenopausal breast cancer by up to 30%.
- Hormone replacement therapy: a woman’s risk of breast cancer is raised by two thirds while using hormone replacement therapy.
- Use of the Pill: the risk of breast cancer is increased by around a quarter in current users of oral contraceptives.
- Alcohol consumption: regularly drinking even a moderate amount of alcohol increases the risk of breast cancer. Cancer Research UK estimates that even just a single alcoholic drink a day will increase a woman’s breast cancer risk by around 12%.
- Staying active: following a more active lifestyle has been shown to reduce a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer.
What are the signs of breast cancer?
The first symptom of breast cancer that most women notice is a lump or an area of thickened tissue in their breast. Most lumps (90%) are not cancerous, but it is always best to have them checked by your doctor.
See your GP if you notice any of the following:
- a lump or area of thickened tissue in either breast
- discharge from either nipple (which may be streaked with blood)
- a lump or swelling in either armpit
- a change in the size or shape of one or both breasts
- 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
- pain in either breast or armpit that is not related to your period
Knowing what your breasts look and feel like can also help you find any changes in the future. Read our guide to becoming breast aware for further information.
What are the chances of surviving cancer?
Better diagnosis, improved treatments, screening programmes and public awareness are all factors that have led to steady improvements in the long-term survival rates for breast cancer. As a result:
- More than 8 out of 10 women with breast cancer will survive for at least five years after diagnoses.
- More than three-quarters of women diagnosed with breast cancer now survive for at least 10 years or more.
- Almost two out of three women with breast cancer now survive their disease beyond 20 years.
The chances of long-term survival are also better the earlier the cancer is diagnosed: around 9 out of 10 of women will live beyond five years if they are diagnosed with stage I breast cancer (a tumour less than 2cm in length and cancer that has not spread around the body). Five-year survival rates drop to around 1 in 10 for women diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer (when cancer has spread to other organs around the body).
Being screened can also improve survival rates for women by catching cancers in their earlier stages. In 2007/08, the NHS breast-screening programmes detected more than 16,000 cases of breast cancer. Cancer Research UK estimates that the UK screening programme saves over 1,000 lives each year.
How can I find out more about breast cancer?
- The NHS Choices Health A-Z section features further information on the symptoms, diagnoses and treatment of breast cancer.
- To read about other people’s experiences with cancer and the support available to cancer patients, see our Live Well breast cancer articles.
- Cancer Research UK has more information and statistics on breast cancer and a range of other cancers on its CancerStats website.
Amended: February 16 2011
Links to the headlines
The Daily Telegraph, 4 February 2011
BBC News, 4 February 2011
Daily Mirror, 4 February 2011
The Sun, 4 February 2011
The Guardian, 4 February 2011
The Independent, 4 February 2011
Daily Mail, 4 February 2011
Daily Express, 4 February 2011