Breast cancer is caused by the uncontrolled growth of cells in your breast tissue. It's the most common cancer in women in the UK.
Your breasts are made up of fat, connective tissue and gland tissue divided into lobes. The lobes are connected to your nipple by milk ducts. Breast cancer usually starts in the cells lining your milk ducts.
In the UK, breast cancer is the most common cancer in women, with over 48,000 women diagnosed each year. The risk of breast cancer increases with age – it's most common in women over 50. Men can also get breast cancer but this is less common, with about 300 men diagnosed each year in the UK.
There are different types of breast cancer, named after the type of cell the cancer first occurs in and how far it has spread. The three most common types of breast cancer are described below.
Symptoms of breast cancer can include:
Being breast aware by checking your breasts regularly can help you spot any changes. These symptoms aren’t always caused by breast cancer but if you have them see your GP. If you do have breast cancer, the sooner you’re diagnosed and start treatment, the more successful it’s likely to be.
Around three out of 10 women with breast cancer have no symptoms and the cancer is found during breast screening. If you’re over 50, you may decide to attend breast screening every three years.
The exact reasons why you may develop breast cancer aren’t fully understood at present. However, there are certain factors that make breast cancer more likely. You're more likely to have breast cancer if you:
Your GP will ask you about your symptoms and examine you. He or she may also ask you about your medical history.
Your GP will refer you to a specialist breast clinic if he or she suspects that you have breast cancer. At the clinic, a doctor or nurse may carry out:
If you have a fine needle aspiration or breast biopsy, the samples will be sent to a laboratory for testing to determine the type of cells and if these are benign (not cancerous) or cancerous.
For more information about diagnosing breast cancer, see our related topics.
The type of treatment you have depends on your general health, your age, the position and size of the cancer in your breast, and how far it has spread. Your surgeon or oncologist will discuss your treatment options with you.
Removing the affected tissue is usually the first treatment option. Depending on the position and size of the cancer, your surgeon may suggest either a lumpectomy or a mastectomy. A lumpectomy is where only the affected breast tissue (or lump) is removed, usually with some healthy tissue around it. A mastectomy is where the whole of your affected breast is removed. If you have a mastectomy, you may be offered surgery to have your breast reconstructed afterwards.
Non-surgical treatments may be used before surgery to help shrink the tumour or after surgery. These treatments may also be used to treat cancer that has spread or come back. Non-surgical treatments available for breast cancer are listed below.
You can help to reduce your risk of breast cancer by living a healthy lifestyle. This means eating a healthy, balanced diet, maintaining a healthy weight and if you drink alcohol, only drinking in moderation.
There is some evidence that vitamin D may help to reduce your risk of breast cancer but more research needs to be done to be certain. Read more about how vitamin D may protect against cancer.
Regular breast screening can help to detect changes in your breast that may be an early sign of breast cancer. The NHS Breast Screening Programme invites all women between the ages of 50 and 70 for breast screening every three years. If you’re in your late 40s or up to 73 years old, you may also receive an invitation to attend screening.
It’s important that you think carefully about the risks and benefits of breast screening before making a decision about whether or not to have the test. See our information on breast screening for more information.
Being diagnosed with cancer can be distressing for you and your family. An important part of cancer treatment is having support to deal with the emotional aspects, as well as the physical symptoms. Specialist cancer doctors and nurses are experts in providing the support you need. You may also find it helpful to see a counsellor or join a support group to meet others in a similar situation.
Produced by Stephanie Hughes, Bupa Health Information Team, July 2012.
For answers to frequently asked questions on this topic, see FAQs.
For sources and links to further information, see Resources.
Free online health risk assessments and calculators.
This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The content is intended only for general information and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the about our health information page.
Worried about breast or cervical cancer? Put your mind at rest with our Comprehensive Female Health Assessment.