Information and Symptoms of Breast Cancer

Breast cancer occurs when the cells of the breast grow abnormally, causing a tumour to form. Breast cancer affects more Australian women than any other cancer. Men can also get breast cancer, although this is rare.

Types of Breast Cancer

There are several types and subtypes of breast cancer. Treatment will vary depending on the type of breast cancer someone has.

Non-invasive Breast Cancers

These breast cancers are confined to the milk ducts or lobules (glands) in the breast. They have not spread to the normal breast tissue.

Ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) – Cancer that started in the milk ducts and hasn’t spread.

This is the most common type of non-invasive breast cancer. Lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS) – Cancer that starts in the lobules and hasn’t spread.

Invasive Breast Cancers

Early breast cancer – Cancer that has spread from the ducts or lobules into surrounding breast tissue. It may also have spread to lymph nodes in the armpit. Most breast cancers are found when they are invasive.

Locally advanced breast cancer – Cancer that has spread to other areas near the breast, such as the chest (including the skin, muscles and bones of the chest).

Secondary Breast Cancer

Metastatic breast cancer – Cancer cells that have spread from the breast to other areas of the body, such as the bones, liver or lungs. This is also called advanced breast cancer.

How common is breast cancer?

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in Queensland women, representing 30% of all cancers in women. Approximately 3,000 women are diagnosed in Queensland each year. One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer by the age of 85.

Although it can occur at any age, the risk of developing breast cancer increases with age. The majority (75%) of new cases develop in women aged 50 and over.

About 30 men are diagnosed in Queensland a each year. This represents less than 1% of all breast cancers.

What are the risk factors?

Women

While the exact cause of breast cancer in women is not known, some risk factors increase the chance of developing it.

Risk factors include:

  • Getting older – breast cancer most commonly affects women over 50
  • Family history – if several close relatives, such as a mother, father, sister or daughter, have been diagnosed with breast cancer, the disease may run in your family
  • A previous breast cancer –  women who have had breast cancer before have a higher risk
  • Benign breast conditions – risk is increased if you have had certain breast conditions, such as atypical ductal hyperplasia, ductal carcinoma in situ or lobular carcinoma in situ.
  • Lifestyle factors – being overweight or drinking more than one standard alcoholic drink a day may also slightly increase the risk.

Having some of these risk factors does not mean you will develop breast cancer. Most women with breast cancer have no known risk factors, aside from getting older.

Men

Breast cancer in men is rare, and usually occurs over the age of 60.

Risk factors include:

  • Family history – several close family members (male or female) who have had breast cancer, especially if they were diagnosed before they turned 40. Several close relatives with cancer of the ovary or colon also increases the risk.
  • Klinefelter syndrome – men with this rare genetic syndrome (three sex chromosomes (XXY) instead of the usual two (XY) are at increased risk of breast cancer.

What are the symptoms of breast cancer?

You or your doctor may notice a change or lump in your breast. This does not mean you have cancer – most breast lumps are benign.

Signs to look for include:

  • A lump, lumpiness or thickening in the breast area
  • Nipple changes, such as a change in shape, or if it turns in (inverts) when it used to stick out
  • Discharge
  • Skin changes, such as dimpling, redness or other colour changes
  • Changes in the size or shape of the breast
  • Swelling or discomfort in the armpit
  • Persistent pain that stays after your period and occurs in one breast only.

These signs don’t always mean you have cancer. However, you should see your GP if you notice anything unusual for you.

How is breast cancer diagnosed?

Your GP will usually do initial tests. Your GP can also refer you to a specialist if further tests are needed. Depending on your symptoms, you may have one or more of the following tests:

  • Physical examination – your GP will feel your breasts and the lymph nodes under your arms
  • Mammogram – this low-dose x-ray of the breast tissue picks up changes that are too small to be felt during a physical examination
  • Ultrasound
  • MRI scan
  • Biopsy – a small amount of tissue is removed from your breast and examined by a pathologist

Other tests include:

  • Blood test – to assess your general health and to look for signs that you are losing blood in your stools.
  • CT scan
  • PET Scan

Some tests may be repeated during or after treatment to check how well the treatment is working. Waiting for the test results can be a stressful time. It may help to talk to a friend or family member, a healthcare professional, or call Cancer Council on 13 11 20.

What is the treatment for breast cancer?

Treatment for early breast cancer aims to remove the cancer and reduce the risk of the cancer spreading or coming back. Treatment may include surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy, hormone therapy and targeted therapies.

Your doctors will consider the following factors to recommend the best treatment for you:

  • Your test results
  • The part of the breast the cancer is in
  • If the cancer has spread
  • Whether the cancer has the oestrogen, progesterone or HER2 receptor protein
  • Your age and general health
  • Your preferences.

For more information on the treatment of breast cancer please see our Understanding Breast Cancer booklet.

What is the prognosis?

Prognosis means the expected outcome of a disease. You may wish to discuss your prognosis and treatment options with your doctor, but it is not possible for any doctor to predict the exact course of your disease.

Most people with early breast cancer can be treated successfully. Survival rates have increased due to better diagnostic tests and scans, earlier detection and improvements in treatment methods.

According to recent statistics, the five-year survival rate for women with breast cancer, is 89%. For many, treatment can improve quality of life.

What support is available?

Whether you have been diagnosed with breast cancer, or have a family member or friend who is affected by cancer, there are times when you may need support. Our professional services and support programs are here to help you.

Find out more about:

You don’t have to face cancer alone – we’re here to help.

For more information on breast cancer please refer to the Understanding Breast Cancer booklet or order a hard copy.