What is Breast Cancer?

Breast Cancer; you may be familiar with the words, but do you actually know what it is? Well, all tissues in our body are made from cells, including the breasts. Cancer starts in the cells which make up the tissues.

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In normal circumstances cells grow and divide as our body requires new cells. When cells get damaged or grow old they are replaced by new cells. Sometimes this natural process goes wrong and new cells appear without our body needing them, while old or damaged cells may build up rather than die. A gradual build up of these cells can form a lump, tumour or mass. Lumps in the breast can be benign (non-cancerous) or malignant (cancerous).

In most cases, breast lumps turn out to be non-cancerous and these benign lumps won’t spread to other parts of our body.However, malignant breast cancer cells can spread. They can move beyond the primary tumour and be transported via the lymph or blood vessels to other parts of the body. Sometimes these cells may attach to other tissues in the body and cause further tumours or growths. The spread of cancer in the body away from the primary tumour is called metastasis.

How Breast Cancer Develops

Have you ever given much thought to how our breasts actually work?
The female breast is made up of many lobes. Inside these lobes are smaller sections called lobules. Milk is produced in small glands inside the lobules. When a woman breast feeds her baby milk flows from the lobules through small ducts to the nipple.
Breast cancer develops in the ducts or the lobules of the breast.

ABCR RiskFactorsRisk Factors for Breast Cancer

Each form of cancer has different risk factors that increase a person’s chance of getting a particular disease.
A person with one or more risk factors for breast cancer may not ever develop the disease but having them does increase the risk.

With breast cancer the risk factors may change with the passing of time.

Breast Cancer Statistics in Australia

  • With 48 women diagnosed each day, breast cancer is one of the most commonly diagnosed cancers in Australia. (AIHW, 2017)
  • One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer by the age of 85. (AIHW, 2017)
  • In 2017 it is estimated 17,586 new cases of breast cancer will be diagnosed in Australia. (AIHW, 2017)
  • In 2017 it is estimated that 3,087 women will lose their battle to this heartbreaking disease, this makes breast cancer the second most commonly diagnosed cancer in Australian women. (AIHW, 2017)
  • Early detection remains the best method for reducing breast cancer related deaths. Breast cancer mortality has continued to drop from around 30 deaths to 20 per 100,000 women between 1982 and 2014.
  • Survival rates have improved significantly since the 1980’s with Australian based medical research playing a vital role in improving detection methods, diagnoses, treatment options and patient care.
  • Breast cancer also affects Australian men. In 2017 it is estimated 144 cases of breast cancer in men will be diagnosed. (AIHW, 2017)
  • The incidence of breast cancer increases with age. In 2017 it’s estimated around 21% of new cases will be diagnosed in women younger than 50 years; and 42% in those aged 65+.
  • In 2014, the average age of diagnosis in Australian women was 61 years old.
  • Given the ageing population, the number of women diagnosed with invasive breast cancer is expected to increase. Projections suggest that in 2018, the number of new breast cancer cases will be about 18,235. This would equate to 49 females being diagnosed with breast cancer every day.ABCR Stats

Statistics taken from the Australian Institute of Health & Welfare Website, 2017.

Breast Awareness

Raising breast awareness is vital in detecting early changes in your breasts.

Early detection has been clearly demonstrated to increase the chances of better and more positive outcomes from breast cancer.
Performing regular self examinations and being aware of what to look for and what is normal for you and your breasts at different times of the month, is vitally important.

You should notify your GP or medical specialist if you notice any of the following changes:

  • On-going pain in the breast
  • Puckering, dimpling or redness of the skin on the breast
  • Nipple discharge or changes in the look or position of the nipple
  • Any lump or skin thickening in the breast tissue
  • The breast feels unusual

Examining Your Breasts

Make sure you take time to examine your breasts regularly. It may be good to put a reminder in your diary or your phone to prompt you.
Some tips:

  • Look at your breasts in the mirror noting the size and shape
  • Some women prefer to examine their breasts lying down or when they are in the shower or bath.
  • Make sure when you examine your breasts you include the area up to your collarbone and down to below your bra line and under your arm.
  • Use the flat of your hand to start then followed by the flat part of your fingers to go deeper into the tissue.
  • Please notify your GP or medical specialist immediately if you notice any changes.

Breast Cancer Screening

Breast mammography has been proven to be a reliable and efficient diagnostic tool, detecting around 90% of breast cancers.

A mammogram is simply an x-ray of the breast and from age 40 women can have mammograms. For women aged 50-69, BreastScreen Australia recommends two-yearly screening mammograms. This is the best way to to detect breast cancer early, before there are any signs or symptoms. Early detection in this age group offers women a better chance of successful treatment and recovery. 

Mammograms have not been readily used for women under 40 as the breast tissue is usually more dense and detection of breast changes or lumps may not be as reliable.

At locations across the country, BreastScreen Australia run a regular screening program for women over 40. For more information please go to www.cancerscreening.gov.au