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Breast Cancer

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in the UK with more than 45,500 women diagnosed each year.

  • Around one in nine women will develop breast cancer during their lifetime. Most women who get breast cancer are past their menopause (change of life), but around one in five women diagnosed each year are under 50 years old.
  • The good news is that survival rates for breast cancer are improving. Of those who do get the disease, eight out of 10 women will survive for five years or more after diagnosis. Two-thirds are likely to survive for at least 20 years.
  • Men can get breast cancer too but it is very rare.
  • It is important to diagnose breast cancer early. We know that the sooner breast cancer is diagnosed, the better the outcome is likely to be.

What can increase my risk of breast cancer?

It is difficult to pinpoint definite causes of breast cancer and that's why we talk about what might increase or decrease your risk.

  • Older women are at greater risk of breast cancer, particularly after the menopause, but it can affect younger women too.
  • You may be more at risk if several close members of your family have had breast cancer, particularly at a young age, although most people with breast cancer do not have any close relatives with the disease.
  • Being overweight, drinking alcohol and taking HRT (hormone replacement therapy) can increase your risk of breast cancer.

How can I reduce my risk of breast cancer?

  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Drink less alcohol.
  • Do regular exercise.
  • Breastfeeding can reduce your risk of breast cancer, although women who have breastfed their children can still develop the disease.

What are the signs and symptoms of breast cancer?

There can be many reasons for changes in the breast and often they will be harmless. Any unusual change needs to be checked as there is a chance it could be a sign of cancer:

  • Size and shape: if one breast changes in size or shape
  • A new lump or thickening in one breast or armpit that is different to the rest of the breast
  • Skin changes: puckering, dimpling, inflammation or redness of the skin
  • Nipple changes: if a nipple becomes inverted (pulled in), changes shape or points differently
  • Rashes on or around the nipple
  • Discharge or fluid (not milky) from one or both nipples
  • Pain or discomfort in the breast or armpit that is not related to your periods
  • Swelling under the armpit or around the collarbone

Be breast aware

It is important to be aware of how your breasts normally look and feel at different times. You will then notice if something is different or if you develop any of the signs and symptoms listed above.

You can become familiar by looking and feeling your breasts from time to time in any way that is best for you:

  • You can feel your breasts in the bath or shower using a soapy hand or lying down in bed. Using body lotion can help. It is important to feel the whole breast including the armpit.
  • You can look at your breasts in the mirror. Move your arms (above your head, on your hips or by your sides) so that you can see your breasts from every angle, including the underside.
  • As older women are at greater risk of breast cancer, it is very important to be aware of any unusual changes after the menopause, when your periods have stopped.

Breasts may change with age and life events, such as pregnancy, breastfeeding, at different times of the month if you still have periods and after the menopause. This is why it is important to know what is normal for you so you will recognise any changes.

What to do if you find a change

  • If you notice any change in your breasts, tell your doctor without delay. Remember, you are not wasting anyone's time.
  • Even if you are not sure if the changes in your breast are serious, if you are worried, that is a good enough reason to go to your doctor.
  • If it is breast cancer, finding it early means treatment is more likely to be successful.
  • If there is no cancer, your doctor can reassure you so that you spend less time worrying.
  • Even if you have other health worries to think about or family members to look after, if you notice any changes in your breasts, do not put off visiting your doctor.

The NHS Breast Screening Programme

It is important to detect breast cancer as early as possible. In the early stages, breast cancer may not have symptoms. This is why the government has introduced the NHS Breast Screening Programme. Screening is free.

Women are invited for screening between the ages of 50 and 70. You will be offered mammograms every three years. A mammogram is an X-ray of the breast. It can detect breast cancer at a very early stage.

From 2009, this age range began to be extended. Women in their late forties and up to the age of 73 are also starting to be invited. It will take a few years for this to happen everywhere in England.

NHS breast screening is not usually available for younger women as mammograms are not as effective on younger breasts. If you are below screening age and worried about breast changes, or have a family history of breast cancer, speak to your GP.

Women over 70 (73 in some parts of England) are not sent invitations for breast screening. This does not mean that older women can't develop breast cancer. Women over 70 are still at a higher risk of breast cancer. If you are over the screening invitation age range, you can ask for free breast screening every three years. Contact your local breast screening unit to make a free appointment.

Breast awareness five-point code

  • YOU should know what is normal for you.
  • KNOW what changes to look for.
  • LOOK and feel.
  • TELL your GP about any changes straightaway.
  • GO for breast screening when invited.

Make a plan

You may find it helpful to make a plan of how you will become breast aware.

  • Work out how you will get to know how your breasts normally look and feel, perhaps in the bath or shower or when getting dressed.
  • Decide what you will do if you find a change in your breasts, such as seeing your doctor straightway.
  • As soon as your invitation to breast screening arrives, plan how you will keep the appointment.

The above information was produced by the Department of Health.

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