Breast cancer

Breast cancer is a primary cancer that starts in the lining of breast ducts or lobules. It’s the most common cancer in the UK and mostly affects women.

By Wallace Health I Medically reviewed by Adrian Roberts.
Page last reviewed: October 2018 I Next review due: October 2021

What is breast cancer?

Breast cancer is when the cells that line the ducts or lobules in your breasts start to grow abnormally and multiply in an uncontrolled way to form a tumour.

There are different types of breast cancer, but it’s most often found in the milk ducts and is usually invasive – called invasive ductal cancer. Other types are:

  • Inflammatory breast cancer
  • Paget’s disease
  • Invasive lobular breast cancer

Sometimes breast cancer spreads to the lymph glands and to other parts of the body. This is called metastasis and is harder to treat.

Around one in eight women will get it in their lifetime. Women in the UK between the ages of 50 and 70 are offered a mammogram every three years. With screening and being aware of changes in your breasts, it’s possible to find and treat breast cancer early. This can mean a good outcome for many women.

How to tell if you have breast cancer

The main breast cancer symptoms are:

  • A lump or thickened area in your breast or under your armpit
  • Puckering of the skin in your breast
  • A rash around your nipple
  • Change in the size or appearance of your breast
  • Leaking from your nipple
  • A constant pain in or around your breast

By checking your breasts regularly you’ll be able to spot if something seems different.

These are often signs of normal changes in your breast, but you should see your GP if you experience any breast cancer symptoms.

Talk to your doctor if you’re concerned about symptoms

You can book an appointment with a Spire private GP today.

Book an appointment

Diagnosis and tests for breast cancer

Your GP will examine your breasts and the lymph nodes under your arms and by your neck. They’ll ask about your family history and if you’re taking HRT or the contraceptive pill, or if you’ve had previous breast surgery.

They may refer you to a breast clinic for:

They may take a sample of breast tissue with:

  • Core biopsy
  • Fine needle aspiration

You may also have these tests repeated if you’ve been recalled back from a routine screening. This is often because the results of a previous mammogram weren’t clear, but may mean there were signs of breast cancer.

If you’re diagnosed with breast cancer, your doctor will be able to tell you the stage and grade of your cancer. To see if your cancer has spread you may also need a:

Causes of breast cancer

About 70% of breast cancers are linked to the presence of the female hormone, oestrogen in your body. Most breast cancers happen by chance and the biggest risk factor is being a female over 50.

Other causes of breast cancer are:

  • Having a late menopause, starting your periods before the age of 12, or not having pregnancies – this means you’ve been exposed to oestrogen for longer
  • Being overweight
  • Too much alcohol or smoking
  • Taking hormone replacement therapy (HRT) or the contraceptive pill, although this depends on other things such as your age and how long you take it
  • Previous radiotherapy or radiation exposure to your chest

A family history of breast cancer – although less common, some women carry a gene mutation that makes them more likely to develop breast cancer

Common treatments for breast cancer

Treatment depends on the type of breast cancer and whether it’s localised within your breast or has spread to other parts of your body. Surgery is usually the first treatment offered to remove a lump or cancerous tissue before it spreads.

You may also be offered:

  • Radiotherapy to destroy any remaining cancerous cells around the area of your breast
  • Chemotherapy drugs to destroy any cancer cells that spread to other parts of your body through your blood or lymph fluids
  • Hormone therapy drugs to control the production of oestrogen, which causes many breast cancers
  • Targeted therapy – drugs that work on very specific actions inside a cancer cell to stop it from multiplying
  • Biophosphates – drugs that prevent your primary cancer from spreading