You may have already read about the risk factors for breast cancer.
But what are the possible signs to watch out for, how can breast cancer be detected at the earliest stage, and how is treated? Read on to find out more.
What are the signs and symptoms of breast cancer?
Most women diagnosed with breast cancer do not have any signs or symptoms of the disease. However, there are sometimes changes in the breast that a woman may notice. Any change should be brought to the attention of your GP. Changes to look out for include:
- A lump in the breast (the most common symptom of breast cancer).
- Swelling in the entire breast or in an area of it.
- Irritation on the skin or dimpling.
- Pain in the breast or nipple.
- Changes in the nipple or breast skin such as redness, thickening, or scaliness.
- A retracted (turned in) nipple or discharge from the nipple (other than breast milk).
How is breast cancer diagnosed?
Your GP will usually order one or more diagnostic tests if:
- You notice a lump in your breast during a self-examination.
- They find a lump or other breast changes during a physical examination.
- A screening mammogram shows a finding that requires more evaluation.
When should a woman have screening mammograms?
Finding breast cancer at an early stage means that a doctor can begin treatment earlier in the course of the disease. Screening mammograms are an important diagnostic tool for early detection and have been shown to help reduce the number of deaths from breast cancer among women 40 to 74 years old. Breast Screen Australia and Breast Screen Aotearoa are national screening programs offering free mammograms every 2 years for women aged between 50 and 74 in Australia and between 45 and 69 in New Zealand.
However if your mother or sister has had breast cancer then it is important to talk to your doctor about the screening mammogram schedule that’s best for you.
If breast cancer is suspected, your GP will refer you to a cancer specialist, called an oncologist, who will perform one or more tests to make a diagnosis and/or to see if the cancer has spread to other parts of the body. The specific test depends on a number of factors, including:
- The type of cancer that is suspected.
- Signs and symptoms that you have.
- Your age and medical history.
- Results from any earlier medical tests.
These tests may include imaging tests such as diagnostic mammograms (similar to screening mammograms but more images of the breast are taken), ultrasounds, and MRIs. These types of tests enable the oncologist to see the structure of a person’s breast.
Imaging tests are useful for suggesting if cancer is present, but only a biopsy can provide a definite diagnosis. During a biopsy, small pieces of breast tissue are taken so that it can be examined under a microscope for the presence of cancer cells.
How is breast cancer treated?
Your oncologist will take a number of factors into account when deciding on a treatment plan. These include:
- If, how far, or how fast the cancer has spread.
- If the cancer cells have certain hormone receptors.
- The amount of a protein called HER2 in the cancer cells.
- Your health and personal preferences for treatment.
- Whether you have gone through menopause.
The most common treatments for breast cancer include:
- Surgery—Surgeons remove a portion of the breast containing the cancer or the entire breast.
- Chemotherapy—Medicines are given to shrink or destroy cancer cells.
- Hormonal therapy—Medicines are given to prevent cancer cells from getting the hormones they need to grow.
- Biological therapy or Immunotherapy—Medicines that work with the body’s own immune system to help it fight cancer cells.
- Radiation therapy—High-energy rays are used to kill cancer cells.
Most women with breast cancer typically receive more than one type of treatment.
Talk with your GP or oncologist if you have any questions about breast cancer, screening, treatment, or steps you can take to reduce your risk. If you think you have any of the signs or symptoms of breast cancer, make an appointment to see your GP right away.
- 1. Breast cancer. Breast-cancer.canceraustralia.gov.au. Published 2018. Accessed December 3, 2018.
- 2. Cancer Screening - BreastScreen and YouInformation about mammography screening. Cancerscreening.gov.au. Published 2018. Accessed December 3, 2018.
- 3. Sign up for a 2-yearly mammogram | Time to Screen - National Screening Unit. Timetoscreen.nz. Published 2018. Accessed December 3, 2018.