Many of us are aware of Pink Ribbon Day and October’s International Breast Cancer Awareness month, yet few people understand the facts which surround breast cancer’s detection and treatment.
Whilst breast cancer is relatively common – affecting 1 in 8 women – a false perception exists that treatments are always successful. Every day, 40 women will be diagnosed with the disease – and over 15,000 a year. In 2016, 3,000 women died.
How does it develop and who is at risk?
Although young women can be at risk of developing breast cancer, in 75% of cases it develops in women over 50 – with the ages between 50 and 74 being the highest risk group. Whilst certain forms of breast cancer can be hereditary, 90% of women who develop it in fact have no family history of the disease.
Those most at risk often possess one or more of the following factors; a first-degree relative diagnosed before age 50, a history of multiple relatives diagnosed with breast cancer, have either previously been diagnosed with ovarian cancer or have had a close relative with ovarian cancer, have had a male relative with breast cancer, or are of Ashkenazi Jewish heritage.
So how is breast cancer found?
Like with all diseases, early detection is important, and for many women, this should start at home with regular self-examination. In 1989, breast cancer mortality peaked, but rates have since declined by 30-40% due to improved treatment, as well as from women feeling empowered enough to seek medical help when they feel a lump in their breast.
The benefits of self-examination are numerous – studies have found that breast cancers detected by breast self-examination are smaller than those detected without screening and are less likely to have spread. Early detection has other benefits too – with higher rates of successful breast conservation thanks to a reduction in the need for a mastectomy. In some cases, this early detection can even reduce the need for chemotherapy.
However, self-examination is not the only form of early detection and nor should it be used as the only diagnosis. In Australia, there are three main forms of early detection; mammograms, clinical breast examinations performed by a doctor, and self-examination.
There are certain cancers which cannot be detected by a mammogram or ultrasound – 20% are found by physical examination, such as in the case of inflammatory breast cancer which is diagnosed clinically, often characterised by a warm, red, swollen breast, with possible nipple retraction or skin changes such as thickening or fine dimpling like an orange.
Mammograms are also not recommended for women under the age of 40 because their breast tissue is too dense to detect changes or abnormality. However, for women in the 50-74 age bracket, mammograms are recommended every 2 years.
Is it true that men can develop breast cancer?
Many people do not realise that men are also at risk of developing breast cancer. In fact, both men and women have breast tissue and for every 100 women, 1 man will be diagnosed with breast cancer, meaning approximately 150 men will be diagnosed each year.
Sadly, because of a lack of understanding around male breast cancers, men are often diagnosed at a much later stage than women, which means a lower survival rate compared to women. Regular checking, as well as seeing a doctor as soon as any changes present are integral to lowering mortality due to male breast cancer.