October is breast cancer awareness month; a time to get out the pink ribbons, bunting and raise some money for breast cancer charities. It’s an international campaign which started in 1985 to raise awareness of breast cancer and to promote the importance of screening (tests to detect the disease). Now every October, breast cancer charities and organisations come together to increase awareness of breast cancer and raise funds for research into its cause, prevention, diagnosis, treatment and cure.
Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer in the UK with 150 women diagnosed every day, which is around 55,000 a year. But it’s not just women who are affected – 390 men are also diagnosed with breast cancer each year. 1 in 7 women in the UK will develop breast cancer in their lives and it is more common in older women. The good news is that two thirds of women diagnosed now survive 20 years or more due to advances in awareness, early detection and treatment.
Breast cancer and its symptoms
Breast cancer develops in the breast tissue when abnormal cells grow and divide in an uncontrolled way. This eventually forms a growth known as a tumour. The first symptom most people notice may be a lump or thickening in their breast or armpit. You may notice changes in the shape or size of your breast, or dimpling or redness of the skin. Your nipple may change position, or may discharge fluid. If you experience any of these symptoms it is important that you book an appointment with your doctor. Early diagnosis can save lives.
It is important to get to know the shape, size and feel of your breasts so you can identify any changes quickly. This is known as being breast aware. Your breasts may change at different times of the month but if you know what’s normal for you, you will be able to notice any changes and make an appointment to see your GP who will be able to make a referral to the breast clinic if necessary.
How to check
It is often recommended to check your breasts when you are in the shower or bath, smoothing your hand over the breast and surrounding areas above and into your armpits. It is normal for breasts to feel lumpier around the time of your period and if this occurs in both breasts, with both feeling softer again after menstruation then this is normally ok. Lumps that persist, or one breast lumpier than the other should be checked by your GP. Any discharge (when not breastfeeding), puckering of the skin or redness should be checked without delay.
National screening programme
Women aged 50 to 70 are invited once every three years to have a mammogram – a screening test to check for breast cancer. This is part of the UK’s national breast screening programme and uses X-rays to detect the presence of cancer before it causes any symptoms. Two million people are screened every year. Mammograms detecting cancer in about 9 out of every 1000 women who are checked. Early detection and treatment leads to better outcomes as the cancers are often smaller and require less treatment. Many cancers develop between mammograms so it is still important to check yourself in between.
What happens at a Mammogram?
If you find a lump and are referred by your GP. You may be invited to a mammogram as part of the screening programme. You will have an appointment that will last up to 30 minutes. The mammogram itself only takes a few minutes with a total of four X-rays taken, two on each breast. They are carried out by specialists called mammographers who will help you through the process. The results are sent to you in the post. If your mammogram has shown an abnormality you will be referred to a specialist breast clinic for further tests.
Causes of breast cancer
The reasons why breast cancer develops in some people and not others are not fully understood. Age is known to play a factor. 80% of cases diagnosed are in those over 50. Genetic mutations which are inherited (passed down from one generation to the next) can lead to close relatives developing breast cancer. Lifestyle factors can also influence the risk of developing breast cancer. Being overweight after the menopause can lead to an increase in the hormone oestrogen in the body which is thought to be a risk factor. Drinking alcohol, even small amounts on a regular basis is thought to increase the risk.
Remember to regularly check your breasts and if you notice anything unusual book an appointment with your GP straight away.