Aside from the core information found below, we also have a section dedicated to answering common Questions about Breast cancer.
The incidence (or new cases each year) in women is 148 per 100,000 which is equivalent to 46,000 new cases of breast cancer each year in the UK. This is one of the highest in the world. The lifetime risk of developing breast cancer in women is 1 in 9. The incidence is associated with increasing age. At the age of 30, the risk is approximately 1:2000, increasing to 1:200 by the age of 40 and eventually 1:10 by the age of 85.
The earlier the age at which periods begin (menarche) and the later the stage at which they finish (menopause) is associated with an increased risk. There is a decreased risk with the number of children, the younger the age of a woman when the first child is born and how long is spent breast feeding. This reduced risk is related to the smaller number of ovulatory cycles and periods.
Other risk factors include alcohol, lack of exercise and being overweight. Hormone replacement therapy which is prescribed far less now has also been associated with an increased risk especially the combined hormone treatment as opposed to oestrogen alone.
Breast cancer has been shown to have genetic links in some cases. If there is a strong family history of breast cancer at a young age, then the relatives can be investigated as to whether they carry the common breast cancer risk genes such as BRCA1, BRCA2 and CHEK2 which can increase the risk by as much as 50-80%.
Although the risk of developing breast cancer is doubled if you have a close relative with breast cancer, the reality is that 85% of women with a close relative who have developed a breast tumour do not develop it themselves.
Saturated fats appear to play a role in some cases of breast cancer but overall the studies on diet as a risk factor in breast cancer are confusing with many studies contradicting each other. This is probably due to the many other factors involved already mentioned under risk factors.
Symptoms and signs
Many cases have no symptoms or signs and are picked up on routine mammography.
The commonest findings are the presence of a lump in the breast, dimpling of the skin over a lump, increase in size of one breast or a change in shape of the breast compared to the other. The nipple may change in shape and appear to go inwards and occasionally small amounts of blood may discharge through the nipple.
Surgery is the standard form of treatment and depending on the size or type of tumour, the surgeon will recommend either removal of the lump alone (lumpectomy) or removal of the whole breast (mastectomy). Depending on the type of tumour and the risks of recurrence, chemotherapy or hormonal therapy with or without radiotherapy will be offered after the surgery.