About the Condition
Breast cancer is the most common cancer in the UK. In 2011, just under 50,000 women were diagnosed with invasive breast cancer. Men can also get breast cancer, although this is very rare, with only 1 in 100,000 men suffering from the disease. Breast cancer is most common in older women, with 80% of diagnoses given to women over the age of 50, although the disease does occur in younger women.
This type of cancer occurs when the genetic material of cells in the breast or chest wall become damaged or changed, producing mutations that affect normal cell growth and division. The abnormal cells then replicate, causing cancer. If undetected, the cancer can spread beyond the breast and move to other parts of the body.
The precise causes of breast cancer are unknown, but there are many risk factors associated with a higher chance of developing the disease. These include:
- Having a family history of breast or ovarian cancer
- Having had a previous diagnosis of breast cancer, or of early non-invasive cancer cell changes in breast ducts, you have increased chances of developing it again
- Having a previous benign breast lump, as certain types of lump may slightly increase your risk of developing breast cancer even though the original lump itself was not cancerous
- Exposure to oestrogen, which is a female hormone that can sometimes stimulate the growth of breast cancer cells
- Being overweight or obese after experiencing the menopause can increase the risk of developing breast cancer, and is thought to be linked to the amount of oestrogen in your body, because being overweight or obese after the menopause causes more oestrogen to be produced
- Being above average height, although the reasons for this are not fully understood
- Regularly having two alcoholic drinks a day
- Exposure to radiation
- Undergoing Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT)
It is normal for your breasts to change, both over your whole life time and during the course of your menstrual cycle. Most changes in your breasts do not indicate breast cancer, but it’s still very important to know how your breasts usually look or feel to be able to notice any changes. Symptoms of breast cancer can include:
- a lump or swelling in the tissue of your breast
- 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 is not usually a symptom of breast cancer.
If any of these symptoms apply to you, or if you have any concerns about similar symptoms, it is essential that you see your doctor at once, as your chances of recovery are much higher if your cancer is diagnosed early.
If you’re referred to CCL for diagnosis, your consultant or oncologist will advise you on which tests are relevant to your individual symptoms. Usually, in order to identify breast cancer, we’ll give you a One-Stop Diagnosis, which is an exhaustive investigation comprising of three separate elements. These are:
- A Clinical Examination, which is a physical examination of your breast and surrounding area by a Consultant Breast Surgeon
- Radiology, which can involve:
- A Mammogram, which involves taking an x-ray image of the breast, using low levels of radiation to create an image of the area of focus
- A breast ultrasound scan, which uses high frequency sound waves to look inside the body and produce live images on a computer display
- A histology, where a very fine needle is used to take sample cells from the breast
- A Core Biopsy, where a doctor takes a sample of tissue from the lump
Don’t forget, if you’re over 50 you are eligible for breast screening every three years, through the NHS National Screening Programme.
At CCL, patients with breast cancer are treated by a team of different specialists, called a Multi-Disciplinary Team (MDT). This team works together to create a treatment plan to suit the individual needs of the patient,and includes breast surgeons, oncologists, pathologists, radiologists and breast care nurses. This ensures that each patient gets the benefit of several specialist opinions and individualised treatment plans are formulated. All patients have access to highly trained breast care nurses, available on site to answer queries about any aspect of the treatment process and for support during the treatment. Once a diagnosis of breast cancer is made, there are several treatment options available, which may be undertaken in combination or singularly, depending on the situation of each individual patient. They are:
- a lumpectomy, where only the affected tissue is removed
- a mastectomy, which is the removal of one or both breasts
- Radiotherapy, where high-energy rays are used to destroy the cancer cells
- Chemotherapy, which involves the use of chemical agents which are toxic to cancer cells, destroying them and preventing them from spreading to different areas. This can be given by injection or in tablet form.
- Hormone therapy, where drugs are used to reduce estrogen production
- Biotherapy, which are newer and more targeted therapies assist the body in fighting the disease.