Many women get lumps and bumps on and around their breasts. In the majority of cases, these lumps are harmless and benign.
What are the symptoms of breast cancer?
- A (usually) painless lump
- There is a change in the appearance or feel or your breast
- Skin puckering
- Something feels unusual
- Inverted nipple
- Discharge from your breast
- A rash
- An ‘orange-peel’ appearance to the breast
- All-over inflammation
If you experience any of these symptoms, rest assured there will usually be a perfectly innocent explanation. However, it is very important you do talk to your doctor about them as there is a chance (albeit a small one) that these issues may be a sign of breast cancer.
If you feel pain in your breasts, remember this is very rarely a symptom of breast cancer. However, do tell your doctor.
What causes breast cancer?
There is no definitive answer as to why some women develop breast cancer, and other women do not. What we do know is there are risk factors associated with breast cancer. These may include:
- Increased risk of breast cancer over 50
- Breast cancer is more common as we age. The majority of cases occur post-menopause (80%).
- This means, if you are over the age of 50, you should be particularly vigilant when it comes to watching out for symptoms of breast cancer
If you’ve had breast cancer before
Once you’ve had breast cancer, there is a higher chance of it coming back compared to the risk of women who have not had breast cancer. This means you should be vigilant, and not afraid of going to your doctor and asking about symptoms that you have noticed. In this way, you can ensure any cancer is caught early and can be treated.
Having suffered certain other cancers also mean it’s important to check your breasts regularly.
- Hodgkin lymphoma
- Lymphocytic leukaemia
- Uterine cancer
- Bowel cancer
- Skin Cancer
You may have heard that if you have a family history of breast cancer, you are more likely to be affected by it. It’s important to put the statistics into perspective - less than 3% of breast cancers are caused by genetics.
However, even without genes, you can still have two people in the same family developing breast cancer, as it is the UK’s most common cancer. Lifestyle factors may also come into play.
- Having a close female relative suffer breast cancer – a sister, mother or daughter – means your risk is doubled
- If two close relatives have had breast cancer, your risk is 5 times higher than the average woman
- Male relatives having breast cancer is also associated with a heighted incidence of breast cancer, but scientists haven’t pinpointed a figure as yet
How can I find out my genetic risk of breast cancer?
At Twenty-five Harley Street our pathology laboratory can run tests to find out your risk of breast cancer.
We can check for BRCA1 and BRCA2 both of which are associated with breast and ovarian cancer; TP53 and CHEK 2, have been recently implicated in the conditions. We can check for these genes too. Contact our pathology lab for more information.
A non-cancerous lump
Some women have a tendency to develop benign breast lumps. Although these are non-cancerous, your risk of breast cancer does go up slightly. If you’re prone cell changes that create lumps in the ducts or clumps of cells inside your breast lobes, you’ll need to be vigilant as there is a correlation between benign lumps and bumps and a heightened risk of breast cancer.
Do keep the risk in perspective; many women have lumps in their breasts and only a small percentage of these will develop into cancer.
Early period start and late menopause
Starting periods early, such as at the age of nine or ten, or having a later menopause (the average menopause age is 51) may be a risk factor in breast cancer.
The reason for this is that exposure to oestrogen can be a factor in developing breast cancer.
Oestrogen regulates the menstrual period and production is kickstarted at puberty.
One of the reasons doctors think that women who have not had children are at a slightly higher risk of cancer, is that their bodies have had more exposure to oestrogen.
Hormone replacement therapy (HRT)
There have been a lot of reports about the link between HRT and breast cancer. The latest research suggests that although HRT does increase the risk of cancer, it is a very small risk.
For many women, the benefits of taking HRT will far outweigh the risks.
Research has shown that using combined HRT doubles the risk of breast cancer compared to non-users. Taking HRT for longer than 10 years, makes risks greater.
Interestingly, using oestrogen-only HRT also heightens the risk, but not by as much as combined HRT.
Ideally, women should discuss with HRT option is best for them on an individual case by case basis.
Putting the risk in perspective: for every 100 women taking combined HRT over the timespan of ten years, an extra 1.9 women will develop breast cancer. The risk continues to increase slightly the longer you take HRT, but returns to normal once you stop taking it.
Taking the pill
Using the contraceptive pill carries with it a slight increase in the risk of breast cancer:
When a woman ceases taking the pill, the risk of breast cancer reverts back to normal after 10 years.
Being overweight and breast cancer
Gaining weight is another factor that can add to the risk of breast cancer, as well as association with other cancers.
Breast cancer expert believe when a woman is overweight her body produces more oestrogen, making cancer more likely to develop.
However, there is also a higher risk of getting breast cancer (and other cancers) when a woman is tall – researchers are still looking at the reasons why this is so.
One theory is that tall women (and women who are obese) have more cells in their bodies – so the risk of cancer rises.
The best way to lower your risk of cancer is to seek guidance from a nutritionist and find out the best way to reach a healthy weight.
Alcohol and your cancer risk
There is a link between the amount of alcohol a woman consumes and her risk of breast cancer.
Compared to women who don't drink at all, women who have three alcoholic drinks per week have a 15% higher risk of breast cancer.
What this means in real terms, that out of every 1000 women who drink three units a day, there will be five extra cases of breast cancer, compared to a group of 10000 women who don’t drink at all.
The risk increases with the more alcohol consumed each day.
If you think you are drinking too much, it might be worth talking one of our emotional wellbeing team.
Exposure to radiation and breast cancer
If you work with radiation (such as X-Rays or radiotherapy), or have had a lot of medical tests that involve radiation (X-rays and CT scans) in your lifetime, you should be aware that the risk of breast cancer rises slightly.
The best way to understand your risk of breast cancer and other cancers is to talk to a GP during a health check.
Screening can give peace of mind, give you a true picture of your risk factors and enable you to catch any cancers early, so they can be caught early, and give you the best chance of recovery.
[sources: NHS, Cancer Research UK]
25 Harley Street's Consultant Gynaecologists
Mr Gardner is Clinical Director for Gynaecology at the Queen Alexandra Hospital. A specialist in endometrial cancer screening and colposcopy. >Read more
A consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist based in London. Within the NHS he practises at Epsom and St Helier University Hospitals NHS Trust. Mr Athanasias has developed special skills in minimally invasive surgery. >Read more
Miss Tania Adib is a Consultant Gynaecologist at Queen’s Hospital, where she is the Lead Clinician for Colposcopy, and Honorary Consultant Gynaecologist at St Bartholomew’s Hospital. >Read more
You can phone to discuss a consultation on 020 3883 9525, or email [email protected]