Breast Cancer Awareness Month: The Facts About Breast Cancer

Every. Ten. Minutes.

A woman in the UK is diagnosed with breast cancer every ten minutes.

That’s a staggering amount of diagnoses every day, year and month.

This is why the whole month of October 2020 is Breast Cancer Awareness Month in the UK. 

Our Director of Wellbeing, Sue Jones, addresses some of the key questions surrounding breast cancer itself….

What Is Cancer? 

Cancer can occur anywhere in the body. Normal / healthy cells divide in an ordered manner and have a certain lifespan. They die when they are damaged or have been worn out. A new cell replaces them. Cancer occurs when cells grow out of control and keep making new cells, which ‘crowds out’ normal cells. This makes it hard for the normal cells to function as they should, as every cell in a body has a role to perform and a job to do.

Can Cancer Spread?

Yes, cancer cells can spread to other parts of the body. This is known as Metastatic cancer. It means the cells have spread from the primary (original site) to the new site on the body. 

Where does the term ‘tumour’ come from?

When cancer cells grow out of control and rapidly replicate, most of them form a lump, which can be referred to as a tumour or a growth.

So are all lumps cancerous?

No, not all lumps are cancerous. Very often, in the diagnosis of cancer, doctors will take a sample of the lump/growth and analyse it to see if it is cancerous or not. Lumps which are not cancerous are known technically as benign (be-nine) and those which are, are known technically as malignant (ma-lig-nunt).

So, what is breast cancer?

Breasts are largely comprised of fatty connective tissue, milk-producing glands and ducts which carry milk from the glands to the nipple. Breast tissue changes naturally throughout a person’s life in response to stimuli from hormones at different stages of life. Examples of this are the onset of breast growth at puberty, pregnancy and breastfeeding. 

Most breast cancers develop in the glands or ducts. Whilst there are many factors which cause breast cancer to develop, which will be explored later, the hormone oestrogen is particularly thought to affect the growth of some breast cancers. Therefore changes which affect hormone levels can also affect cancer risk. 

Who can breast cancer affect?

Around one in eight women will have breast cancer at some stage in their lifetime. Breast cancer is one of the most common cancers in the UK. It can affect men, but this is a rare.

Estimations suggest that only around three percent of breast cancer cases occur in women who carry mutated genes, such as the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene, which greatly increase the risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer **.

It should be noted that those who inherit these genes are at a higher risk, but it does not mean that they will definitely get cancer, as risks can be lowered through living a certain lifestyle, which will be explored later. 

What are the signs of breast cancer?

Early signs of breast cancer can be the presence of a lump in a breast or armpit, a painful breast or a painful armpit, thickening or swelling of part of the breast which is not part of the usual monthly cycle, redness or flaky skin in the nipple area or the breast, or a discharge from a nipple (other than milk).

If any of these signs do present, it is important to stay calm; it can be very common to have a pain or lump which is not cancerous. For instance the lump could be a cyst or benign. It’s important to visit your GP who will perform an examination and order a mammogram if they are concerned. 

More information on mammograms

A mammogram is an X-ray picture of the breast to look for early signs of cancer. Different people experience mammograms differently. Some find them uncomfortable or painful, whilst others report that they feel little during the mammogram process. It is normal to feel a small level of discomfort during the X-ray process as the pressure against the breasts from the testing equipment can cause discomfort or pain. 

The mammogram screening process in England is extended to women who are aged 50 until their 71st birthday, who are registered with a GP. These women are automatically invited to a screening every three years. Women under the age of 50 are not normally invited for breast screening unless they are at an increased risk of breast cancer or their GP has referred them due to a concern.

Diet and lifestyle factors

As explored earlier, experts agree that certain factors can increase risk of breast cancer. These include:

  • Drinking alcohol
  • Gaining weight as an adult
  • Lack of physical activity in line with government recommendations
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Not breastfeeding when you have a baby
  • Age (risk increases as we age)
  • Height (research indicates that taller women have a greater risk)
  • Starting periods early (before the age of 12)
  • Having a greater weight at birth
  • Not having children
  • Having the first child after the age of 30
  • A family history of breast cancer
  • Taking combined Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT). It’s worth noting that the risk decreases gradually after it is stopped
  • Taking the oral contraceptive pill. The risk increases slightly when the pill is being taken but will slowly return to normal after it is stopped.

These risks don’t mean a person will develop breast cancer, it just means that their risk may be higher than average.

Reducing the risk of breast cancer

In order to reduce the risk:

  • Don’t drink alcohol
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Be more active
  • If you are able to, breastfeed your baby

Importance of self-checking

Women should check their breasts once a month and know what is normal for them, including the look and feel of their breasts. It is normal for breasts to be more lumpy or swollen during certain times of the monthly cycle. In being breast aware, changes are easier to spot. 

For more information on self-checks, visit the NHS guidance page on checking your breasts at home here.

Lots of women have lumps in their breasts, and 9 out of 10 are not cancerous***, but if you do have a history of cancer in your family, spot anything unusual, or are concerned you may have genes which increase your cancer risk, it is important to speak to your GP as a first port of call. 

Advise your employees

Understanding key information around cancer is vitally important. Many workplaces choose to host seminars and training sessions to help educate employees. If you’d like to find out more, please get in touch with the team.

*source – WCRF UK 

**source – WCRF UK 

***source – NHS

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