Breast cancer is caused by an abnormal and uncontrolled growth of cells in your breast tissue.
Your breasts are made up of fat, connective tissue and gland tissue that’s divided into lobes. The lobes are connected to your nipple by milk ducts. Breast cancer usually starts in the cells that line your milk ducts.
In the UK, breast cancer is the most common cancer in women – over 49,000 women are 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 it’s less common – about 400 men are 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.
It’s important to check your breasts regularly as this will help you spot any changes. Symptoms of breast cancer include:
If you have any of these symptoms, see your GP. If you do have breast cancer, the sooner you’re diagnosed and can start treatment, the more successful it’s likely to be.
It’s possible you might not have any symptoms of breast cancer and it might be found during breast screening.
The exact reasons why you may develop breast cancer aren’t fully understood at present. However, you’re more likely to develop it if you:
Having 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 go for screening.
Your GP will ask you about your symptoms and examine you. He or she may also ask you about your medical history.
If your GP suspects you have breast cancer, or it was detected in screening, you will be referred to a specialist breast clinic.
A process called triple assessment is used to diagnose breast cancer. There are three stages to this.
The results of a triple assessment can help your doctor decide if you need any more investigations and treatment.
If you’re diagnosed with breast cancer, you may need to have other tests to find out how advanced it is. This process, known as staging, takes into account whether the cancer has spread and how big it is. Your doctor will usually advise you to have scans, such as an ultrasound, MRI or CT, to check your breasts, abdomen (tummy) and lymphatic system. Your lymphatic system is the tissues and organs that are part of your immune system.
You may also need to have a needle biopsy of the lymph nodes (glands) in your armpits. This will check if the cancer has spread.
There are a number of treatment options for breast cancer. The treatment you have will depend on your personal circumstances, such as your general health, age and if the cancer has spread.
A multidisciplinary team, including a surgeon, radiologist and oncologist (a doctor who specialises in cancer care) will discuss your treatment options with you. This team will also help you with the wider aspects of your care, such as emotional support and help with your day-to-day activities.
Surgery is usually the first treatment option if your cancer is early-stage or hasn’t spread beyond your breast. Depending on the position and size of the cancer, your surgeon may suggest either surgery that means you keep your breast or a mastectomy.
Your surgeon may also take a sample of tissue from the lymph nodes in your armpit and check to see if they are cancerous. This is called a sentinel lymph node biopsy. You may have this even if you had a small cancer and an ultrasound of your armpit suggested the lymph nodes were healthy. This is because your sentinel nodes are the first place that breast cancer spreads to. If your sentinel nodes are found to contain cancer cells, your surgeon will remove these during your operation.
If you have a mastectomy, you should also be offered surgery to have your breast reconstructed afterwards. Whether or not to have a reconstruction is your personal choice. Some women choose to have their breast reconstructed straight away, whereas others decide to have it at a later date, or not at all. Your surgeon will talk to you about your options.
Your doctor may recommend you have non-surgical treatments before surgery to help shrink your tumour, or after surgery to help stop it coming back. You may also be offered these treatments if you have cancer that has spread or come back. Non-surgical treatments available for breast cancer are listed below.
You might be able to take part in a clinical trial as new treatments become available and need to be tested. Ask your doctor for information about clinical trials.
After treatment for breast cancer, you will have regular check-ups with your doctor to see if there is any sign that the cancer has returned. If the cancer has already spread, further support is available from specialist cancer doctors and nurses to get treatment for any symptoms. This is called palliative care.
You can help to reduce your risk of breast cancer by living a healthy lifestyle. This means eating a healthy, balanced diet, staying a healthy weight, exercising and if you drink alcohol, only doing so in moderation.
If you have a high risk of getting breast cancer, you may decide to have a mastectomy to prevent it developing. If you take medicines such as tamoxifen, it may also reduce your risk of breast cancer. Ask your doctor for more information.
Reviewed by Rachael Mayfield-Blake, Bupa Health Information Team, June 2014.
For answers to frequently asked questions on this topic, see FAQs.
For sources and links to further information, see Resources.
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.