Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in women in Queensland and Australia.
It is the second highest cause of cancer-related death in Queensland women. The early detection of breast cancer can lead to increased survival rates and improved quality of life.
What is breast cancer?
The organs and tissues of the body are made up of tiny building blocks called cells. Cancer is a disease of these cells. Breast cancer occurs when cells in the breast tissue grow in an uncontrolled manner. As these cells continue to grow, they develop into a lump called a tumour. Tumours can either be benign or malignant.
Benign tumours do not spread to other parts of the body and are not cancerous. A malignant tumour consists of cancer cells which can spread to other parts of the body. When these cancer cells reach a new site they may continue to grow and form a new tumour. These are often referred to as "secondary" cancers or a "metastasis".
The cause of breast cancer is unknown. There are a number of factors which may increase a person's likelihood of developing breast cancer; however everyone is at risk of developing the disease. It is unlikely that there is one single cause and there are probably a number of factors which work together to trigger the growth of a cancer.
Risks and screening
Risk factors include:
- Being female. This is the main risk factor for developing breast cancer. Although men can also develop breast cancer, the incidence rates are low.
- Age. Breast cancer is rare in women under 30, but the risk increases steadily with age. Around 75 per cent of cases occur in women aged over 50 years.
- Previous history of breast cancer. Women who have already had breast cancer have a slightly higher chance of developing cancer again.
- Family history. Women with a strong family history of breast cancer may have an increased chance of developing the disease. The risk depends on the number of relative affected, the age of the relative(s) when they developed breast cancer and whether they were on one or both sides of the family. Family history accounts for less than five per cent of all breast cancer diagnosed.
- Early onset of menstruation.
- Late menopause.
- Delayed or no child-bearing.
- Obesity in post-menopausal women.
- Alcohol consumption.
- A screening mammogram is an x-ray of the breast used to look for signs of breast cancer. A mammogram can detect early breast changes before a woman is symptomatic. Women aged between 50 and 69 years should have a screening mammogram every two years.
- Breast Screen Queensland provides free screening mammograms for all women aged over 40 years. Women aged between 50 and 69 years will receive two yearly reminders when their next mammogram is due. Mammograms are also available through private providers at a cost to the patient.
- Mammograms are not 100 per cent accurate, but they remain the best method for the early detection of breast cancer. If you detect any breast changes, they should be seen by your health professional immediately for further investigations.
- If you have any symptoms of breast cancer, your health professional may refer you for a diagnostic mammogram. Diagnostic mammograms look at something in the breast that may be concerning the woman or her health professional, for example a lump or other breast changes. Additional views from different positions may be taken to focus on the area where a change has been felt.
- Mammography for women under the age of 40 is less effective in detecting changes as breast tissue is often too dense for the x-rays to recognise breast changes.
- Women who are not in the national screening age group (between 50 and 69 years) and who have a family history of breast cancer should discuss screening options with their health professional. If you notice any breast changes, you should see your health professional immediately for investigation. There are alternative screening procedures that can be used to investigate breast changes in women under 40 years.
Symptoms and breast awareness
It is important all women are familiar with how their breasts usually look and feel at different times of the month. Learning how your breasts look and feel will help you understand what is normal for you. Being familiar with your breasts means you may be more likely to notice any unusual changes. Changes to look for include:
- A lump, lumpiness or thickening of the breast.
- Changes in the shape or size of the breast.
- Changes in the appearance of your skin, in a particular area of the breast.
- Dimpling or puckering of the skin on the breast.
- Discharge from the nipple.
- Rash on the nipple or surrounding area.
- Inversion or 'turning in' of the nipple.
- Swelling of the upper arm.
- Swelling or a lump in the armpit.
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The information available on this page should not be used as a substitute for advice from a properly qualified medical professional who can advise you about your own individual medical needs. It is not intended to constitute medical advice and is provided for general information purposes only. See our Disclaimer.