To mark Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we’re taking a look at risk factors, symptoms and treatment of breast cancers in women, as well as the novel research being carried out by Cure cancer grant recipient Dr Shuai Li.
Sadly, breast cancer in women is a common form of the disease. In 2020, it is estimated that 19,807 females will be diagnosed with breast cancer in Australia alone, making it the most prevalent form of cancer in women in this country – in fact, the risk of being diagnosed with the disease by age 85 is one in 8 for women. It is also the second most common cancer to cause death in women, after lung cancer.
Thankfully though, mortality is decreasing and survival is improving. The five-year survival rate is high at 96% for cancers that have remained within the breast, and 91% for cancers that have spread or ‘metastasized’.
Who is at risk of developing breast cancer?
Breast cancer occurs when cells lining the breast lobules or ducts multiply and grow out of control. The cancers can stay within the breast or can spread to other parts of the body.
Some factors that increase your risk of breast cancer include:
- Family history, including inheritance gene mutations (BRCA2, BRCA1 and CHEK2)
- Increased exposure to female hormones (early menstruation, late menopause, pregnancy at an older age, never having given birth)
- A previous breast cancer diagnosis
- A past history of non-cancerous breast conditions.
- Lack of exercise
- Drinking alcohol
Symptoms of Breast Cancer
Breast cancer is often symptomless and only becomes apparent when found during a mammogram screening. However, some symptoms may include:
- Lumps or thickening in the breast or under the arm
- Nipple sores and/or discharge
- Changes in the size or shape of the breast or nipple
- Skin of the breast dimpling
- Rash or red swollen breasts
If you notice any changes to your breasts, schedule an appointment to see your doctor .
It may be nothing, but it’s always better to be safe than sorry. The fastest and easiest way to search for and book healthcare appointments is with MyHealth1st.
Diagnosing Breast Cancer
Breast cancer is usually diagnosed following a series of tests. These might include:
- Mammograms - Similar to an x-ray, a mammogram will detect lumps that are too small to be felt during a physical examination
- Ultrasound - A painless scan which creates a picture of the breast using soundwaves
- Biopsy - A small amount of breast tissue will be removed and sent to the lab for testing
- CT and MRI Scans - CT stands for ‘computed tomography’. A CT scan uses multiple X-ray images taken from different angles to produce tomographic images, allowing doctors to see inside the body. MRI stands for magnetic resonance imaging.
MRI scans use strong magnetic fields, magnetic field gradients, and radio waves to generate images of the organs in the body. CT and MRI scans are normally only used when a breast cancer diagnosis has been determined. They help to diagnose the location and stage of the cancer.
Upon completion of tests, doctors will be able to tell what stage the breast cancer has progressed to. The stage of a breast cancer is determined by its size and if it has hormone receptors. Hormone receptors are proteins found in the breast cells that pick up hormone receptors telling the cells to grow.
Knowing what stage the cancer is at helps the medical team decide on the best treatment options and determine a likely prognosis.
Breast cancer stages are expressed as a number on a scale of 0 through IV. Stage 0 describes non-invasive cancers that remain within their original location and stage IV describes invasive cancers that have spread outside the breast to other parts of the body.
How is breast cancer treated?
Once staging has been determined, doctors can decide on the most suitable treatment option. These may include:
Surgery - Surgery to remove breast cancer may involve a lumpectomy, where part of the breast is removed, or a mastectomy, where all of the breast is removed. Surgery is most successful when the cancer is localised (ie. Has not spread to other parts of the body). Doctors may also advise the removal of breast and lymph nodes under the arm.
Chemotherapy - Chemotherapy is often used to help shrink the cancer before surgery, or post-surgery to help kill any cancer cells that have been left behind.
Radiation Therapy - Radiotherapy is recommended after surgery to help destroy any remaining cancer cells. It is also recommended if lymph nodes were removed from under the arm and there is a risk that the cancer will return to this area.
Hormone Therapy - Typically given in combination with other treatments, hormone therapy can be effective on breast cancers which have hormone receptors. Hormone therapy (or ‘endocrine therapy’) aims to stop or slow the growth of breast cancers that use hormones to grow.
Research into Breast Cancer in Women: Dr Shuai Li
Based at the University of Melbourne, Cure Cancer grant recipient Dr Shuai Li is seeking to understand why and how puberty and menopause can affect the incidence of breast cancer, and in particular which genes can be impacted by the two factors.
‘My project will integrate genetic and epigenetic data to find answers,’ he says. ‘This will provide new evidence about the causes of the disease, and if I’m successful, it could reveal prevention strategies related to female hormones and potentially pave the way for new treatments.’
‘If I could ask one thing it would be that we all support cancer research so that we can help cancer patients now and in the future. We can’t allow cancer research to be disrupted or paused, particularly as additional efforts and resources are likely to be necessary once the threat of the pandemic has eased.’
‘Your support will help us better prepare for the future.’
To support life saving cancer research like that of Dr Shuai Li, please make a donation today: DONATE