Information and symptoms of breast cancer

Breast cancer occurs when the cells lining the breast lobules or ducts grow abnormally and out of control. A tumour can form in the lobules or ducts of the breast. 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

Ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) – Abnormal cells are contained within the ducts of the breast.

Lobular cancer in situ (LCIS)  – Some women have abnormal cells in the lobules of the breast. This is not cancer. While LCIS increases the risk of developing cancer, most women with this condition will not develop breast cancer.

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. The most common types are invasive ductal carcinoma and invasive lobular carcinoma.

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 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 28 per cent of all cancers in women. Approximately 3,300 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 25 men are diagnosed in Queensland a each year. This represents less than 1 per cent of all breast cancers.

What are the risk factors?


In women, the exact cause of breast cancer is not known, but some factors increase the risk.

Risk factors include:

  • Getting older – most common in women over 50.
  • Having several close relatives such as a mother, father, sister or daughter, diagnosed with breast cancer on the same side of the family.
  • If you have had breast cancer before.
  • If you have certain breast conditions, such as atypical ductal hyperplasia, ductal carcinoma in situ or lobular carcinoma in situ.
  • Lifestyle factors, such as 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 necessarily mean that you will develop breast cancer. Most women with breast cancer have no known risk factors, aside from getting older.


In men, breast cancer usually occurs over the age of 60.

Risk factors include:

  • Several close family members (male or female) who have had breast cancer.
  • A relative diagnosed with breast cancer under the age of 40.
  • Several relatives with cancer of the ovary or colon.
  • A rare genetic syndrome called Klinefelter syndrome. Men with this syndrome have three sex chromosomes (XXY) instead of the usual two (XY).

What are the symptoms of breast cancer?

Some people have no symptoms but if you do, you may notice a change in your breast or your doctor may find an unusual breast change during a physical examination.

Signs to look for include:

  • A lump, lumpiness or thickening.
  • Changes to the nipple, such as a change in shape, crusting, a sore or an ulcer, redness, unusual discharge, or a nipple that turns in (inverted) when it used to stick out.
  • Changes to the skin, such as dimpling, unusual redness or other colour changes.
  • An increase or decrease in the size of the breast.
  • A change in the shape of the breast.
  • Swelling or discomfort in the armpit.
  • Persistent unusual pain that is not related to your normal menstrual cycle, remains after your period and occurs in one breast only.

Breast changes don’t necessarily mean you have cancer. However, if you have any symptoms, have them checked by your doctor without delay. Some women have no symptoms and the breast cancer is found on a screening mammogram.

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:

  • Bone scan – may be done to see if the breast cancer has spread to your bones.
  • Blood test – to assess your general health and also test your bone and liver function for signs of cancer.
  • CT scan.
  • PET Scan.
  • Chest x-ray – your doctor may take an x-ray of your chest to check your lungs for signs of cancer.

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, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, hormone therapy and targeted therapies.

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

  • Your test results
  • Where the cancer is in the breast
  • 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 90 per cent. 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.