Breast Cancer Awareness

October is Breast Cancer Awareness month. It highlights the fact that Breast cancer is the most common cancer in Australian women. Did you know that it affects more than 15,000 Australians every year?

Ongoing research by our nation’s experts is discovering how and why breast cancers start. This extensive research is helping to advance better treatments for breast cancer.

What is the research looking at?

Current Breast cancer research is focussing on:

  • Discovering the link between breast stem cells, breast development and breast cancer.
  • It is investigating how the female hormones oestrogen and progesterone are linked to breast cancer. Indicators suggest that they lead to an increased risk and this link is a real focus right now.
  • Testing the effectiveness of new anti-cancer medications.
  • There are a number of clinical trials aimed at improving treatments.
  • Looking at developing new ways to match breast cancer patients to the best treatment for their disease.

What is breast cancer?

Breast cancer occurs from cells from within the breast accumulate and changes their DNA. These genetic mutations allow them to grow in an uncontrolled manner and we see Breast Cancer as a result.

The breast, when healthy is designed and works to produce and secrete milk from the nipple. Many breast cancers start with cells in the breast ducts, which would usually transport milk to the nipple. Some cancers develop from cells in the milk-producing lobules themselves. It is unusual for cancers to come from other structures in the breast such as fat or lymphatic vessels.

Breast cancers begin as a small, confined tumour. These tumours can then grow and spread throughout the breast. Early growths that are ‘pre-invasive’ as they have not left the ducts are termed DCIS, short for ‘Ductal Carcinoma In Situ. Invasive cancers are often described as ductal or lobular, based on their appearance using a microscope.

Some breast cancer cells may develop further changes that then results in their escape from the breast. They travel through lymphatic vessels to lymph nodes, or they may spread through the blood to other organs. This process is called ‘metastasis’.

Breast cancer risk factors

Most breast cancers arise ‘spontaneously’, with no identifiable reason. Around 5% of Australian breast cancer cases are ‘hereditary’, they are passed by family members. This means the patient carries an inherited breast cancer risk gene, such as BRCA1 or BRCA2. This puts them at elevated risk of breast and ovarian cancer.

Other factors that increase a person’s risk of developing breast cancer include:

  • Gender: females are at a much higher risk of developing breast cancer, but breast cancer can occur in men
  • Older age: like many cancers, the risk of developing breast cancer increases with age – about 80% arise after age 50
  • Exposure of breast cells to female hormones
  • Excessive alcohol consumption
  • Obesity
  • Exposure to high doses of radiation


How is breast cancer treated?

Breast cancers that are confined to the breast, or have not spread beyond the lymph nodes can often be cured. Treatment depends on the precise tumour features and may include:

  • Surgery
  • Radiation therapy
  • Chemotherapy
  • Hormonal therapy, that blocks the action of oestrogen

You should speak to your GP if you are concerned. They can, very quickly test and advise the next course of action.

Metastatic breast cancer, which has spread further in the body, is often treated with chemotherapy or hormonal therapy. The treatment chosen will depend on the tumour itself and the patient

In some cases, treatments are designed to target particular molecules that are promoting cancer growth.

Some of the signs to look out for which may indicate Breast Cancer include:

  • Swelling of all or part of a breast (even if no distinct lump is felt)
  • Skin irritation or dimpling (sometimes looking like an orange peel)
  • Breast or nipple pain.
  • Nipple retraction (turning inward)
  • Redness, scaliness, or thickening of the nipple or breast skin.
  • Nipple discharge (other than breastmilk)

Self Examination.

The most effective way to detect the signs of Breast Cancer is self-examination. You should LOOK at the shape and appearance of your breasts and nipples. Use a mirror with your hands by your sides.

  • Raise your arms above your head and have another look.
  • LOOK at the shape and appearance of your breasts and nipples in the mirror with your hands by your sides.
  • Raise your arms above your head and have another look.
  • FEEL all of your breasts and nipples, looking for anything that isn’t normal for you.
  • Feel from your collarbone to below the bra-line, and under your armpit too.
  • LEARN what’s normal for you!

Breasts come in all different shapes and sizes, so get to know your normal. See your doctor if you notice any changes. What to do if you have concerns?

Got Concerns?

If you have any concerns at all you should make an appointment to visit your GP or a clinic that specialises in Women’s Health. Women’s Health Hub will be happy to help you! Either will be able to refer you to the right people for correct investigation. They will also be able to show you how to self-examine which is the most vital step in maintaining the health of your breasts.