As with most cancers, in the early stages, breast cancer usually has
no symptoms. As a tumour spreads, you may notice the following:
swelling in the armpit.
breast pain or
a lump in the breast.
a noticeable flattening
or indentation on the breast.
any change in the
contour, texture, or temperature of the breast
pitted surface like the
skin of an orange.
a change in the nipple,
such as dimpling, itching or burning, or ulceration or scaling.
unusual discharge from
Every month, the breasts
change, this is associated with a womans menstrual cycle. During this time a lump
may form. While most of these are not cancerous, any lump should be examined immediately
by a doctor.
Breast cancer usually
begins with the development of a small, localised tumour. Some tumours are benign (meaning
they do not invade other tissue), others are malignant, or cancerous. The potential for a
malignant tumour to spread is a problem with all cancers.
Once such a tumour grows to
a certain size, it is more likely to give off cells that spread to other parts of the body
through the bloodstream and lymphatic system.
Some breast cancers grow
and spread at a fast rate, others take years to spread beyond the breast.
If detected early enough,
breast cancer is very treatable. Once the cancer begins to spread, getting rid of it
completely is more difficult, although treatment can often control the disease for years.
Doctors are unsure what
exactly causes breast cancer, but they do know of certain risk factors that increase the
chances of getting the disease in certain women. (Although some women who are believed to
be high risk, do not ever get it and others who are low risk do).
a family history of
if you have had a benign
breast lump or cancer of the breast or the ovaries.
A woman whose close
relative has had breast cancer is more likely to develop the disease
the greater a woman's
exposure to the female hormone oestrogen, the more susceptible she is to breast cancer.
(Oestrogen controls cell division - the more the cells divide, the more likely they are to
be abnormal in some way, possibly becoming cancerous).
Oestrogen and progesterone
levels rise and fall during the womans lifetime. The age she starts and stops
menstruating, the average length of her menstrual cycle, and her age at first childbirth
can influence if she will develop breast cancer.
Taking hormones in the form
of birth-control pills or hormone replacement therapy may also increase risk.
The diet-breast cancer link
is still debated.
Breast cancer responds to
treatment best when it is detected early. In addition to having an annual medical checkup,
all women should conduct monthly breast self-examinations. A mammogram is strongly
recommended for women between the ages of 35 and 55.
To distinguish between
benign and malignant lumps, feel the lump - a benign cyst may feel like a round, slippery
bean. A tumour may feel thicker and can also cause dimpling of the skin above it. The only
way to confirm cancer is to perform a biopsy and test the tissue sample for cancer cells.
In the event of malignancy,
you and your doctor need to know how far along the cancer is. Various tests are used to
check for the presence and likely sites of metastasis. Cancer cells need to be analysed to
check for spreading or metastasis. The tests will also determine if hormone receptors are
present, if so the cancer is likely to respond well to hormone therapy.
If you have breast cancer,
always research your options before rushing in and making rash treatment decisions. Ask
your doctor, specialists, and people who have had the disease, as many questions as you
think relevant and seek a second opinion at a major cancer treatment centre. Always work
with people that you trust, and don't rush your decision. A small delay before treatment
will usually do no harm.
The options for treating
breast cancer depend on how the cancer itself, your age, and how healthy you are. If
possible, breast cancer is treated surgically, followed usually by some combination of
radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or hormone therapy.
A total mastectomy used to
be the only considered treatment for breast cancer. This operation removes the breast,
surrounding fat, muscle and lymph nodes.
For many women whose breast
cancer is detected early and is still localised, there is another option - the removal of
the cancerous lump and the lymph nodes under the arm only. Followed by appropriate
radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and hormone therapy, this is proving to be just as and is
much less disfiguring.
For breast cancer that is
recurrent or has metastasised, radiation therapy and chemotherapy are the usual
For further information on
radiation, chemotherapy, and other treatments, see our Cancer section.
There are, at the moment no
scientifically proven method of curing cancer. Alternative measures should only be
undertaken along with your traditional treatments.
Regular aerobic exercise
may prevent some forms of breast cancer developing. Studies have found that women who
exercised vigorously and often were at least half as likely as more sedentary women to get
Besides pursuing meditation
or yoga, many people benefit from group therapy. Relaxation techniques will usually help
the patient cope better with the stress of having this disease.
Your diet may be important
in preventing breast cancer. Change your diet to include fruits, vegetables, legumes and
grains. Limit your intake of fats from animals - meats, dairy products and butter.
Eat plenty of natural fibre
and along with vitamins and minerals that protect against breast cancer, specifically
vitamins A, C,
D, and E,
and calcium, selenium, and iodine. Some doctors recommend that breast cancer
patients and survivors take antioxidant supplements.
Check your breasts once a
month, have your doctor check your breasts once a year, and have mammograms annually if
you are age 50 or older. Start mammograms earlier if you have a family history of breast
Make fruits, vegetables,
grains, and fish the mainstays of your diet.
If you practice
contraception, ask your doctor about the pros and cons of oestrogen-based birth-control
When to seek further