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07 November 2022

Breast cancer explained

6 mins

As the most common cancer in the UK, it’s important to highlight the symptoms of breast cancer so that it can be spotted, and treatment can be started as soon as possible.

Breast cancer occurs when abnormal cells in the breast begin to grow and divide in an uncontrolled way, and eventually form a growth (also known as a tumour).

Breast cancer starts in the breast tissue, most commonly in the cells that line the milk ducts of the breast. Breast cancer mainly affects women, but men can be diagnosed with breast cancer too.

According to Cancer Research UK:

  • Around 55,500 women and around 370 men are diagnosed with breast cancer in the UK each year. 
  • One in seven women in the UK develop breast cancer during their lifetime, and it is more common in older women. 
Risk factors

An individual’s risk of breast cancer can be affected by age, family history, and lifestyle factors such as obesity, smoking, drinking alcohol, and being inactive.

There are also factors that you unfortunately cannot change, such as family history and inherited genes, which may put you at higher risk of developing breast cancer than the rest of the population.

Studies have found several gene faults that can increase breast cancer risk, some of which there are tests for, two such gene faults are known as BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations. But these are not common, with around 1 in every 400 people having a fault BRCA1 or BRCA 2 gene.

If you have a family history of breast cancer or an inherited gene, it is important to go for regular check-ups with your GP, and report any changes immediately. Referrals should also be made by your GP to specialist breast clinics if you have certain relatives with a history of cancer, or are of a higher-risk ancestry.

Breast cancer in men

Whilst rare, breast cancer can occur in men. Around 370 men are diagnosed with the disease every year in the UK. They have a small amount of breast tissue, and this is where the cancer starts.

The Male Breast Cancer Pooling Project has identified that obesity in men increases the risk of developing Breast Cancer by around 30%. Men who have been diagnosed may find it helpful to contact Walk the Walk, a charity that launched their ‘Men Get Breast Cancer Too’ campaign in 2017.

Signs and symptoms

Signs and symptoms of breast cancer in women include: 

  • A lump or swelling in the breast, upper chest or armpit
  • Changes to the skin, such as puckering, dimpling or a rash
  • Changes in the colour of the breast – the breast may look red or inflamed
  • Nipple changes, for example it has become pulled in (inverted)
  • Rashes or crusting around the nipple
  • Unusual liquid (discharge) from either nipple
  • Changes in size or shape of the breast

In men, the most common symptom of breast cancer is a lump in the chest area, but other symptoms may include:

  • Liquid, sometimes called discharge, that comes from the nipple without squeezing and which may be blood-stained
  • A tender or inverted (pulled in) nipple
  • Ulcers (sores) on the chest or nipple area
  • Swelling of the chest area and occasionally the lymph nodes under the arm
Types, stages and grades of breast cancer
The stage of a cancer describes:
  • The size of the cancer
  • Whether the lymph nodes are affected
  • If the cancer has spread to other parts of the body

Your breast cancer may be described as stage 1, stage 2, stage 3 or stage 4 (also known as secondary), and an early form of breast cancer called Ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) is sometimes referred to as stage 0.

Grades of breast cancer

Breast cancers are given a grade according to how different the cancer cells are to normal breast cells, and how quickly they are growing

The grade of a cancer is different to the stage of a cancer – a cancer’s grade is determined when a doctor looks at the cancer cells under a microscope, using tissue from a biopsy or after breast cancer surgery.

There are three grades of invasive breast cancer:

  • Grade 1 looks most like normal breast cells and is usually slow growing 
  • Grade 2 looks less like normal cells and is faster growing  
  • Grade 3 looks different to normal breast cells and is usually fast growing

The grade alone will not be the only factor in determining the treatment that you receive, but if you are diagnosed with Grade 3 breast cancer, you are more likely to need chemotherapy.

Ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) has three grades; usually low, intermediate and high.

Secondary breast cancer

Secondary breast cancer means that a breast cancer has spread to another part of the body. This can include the liver, lungs, brain, or bones, but it doesn’t include breast cancers that affect the lymph glands under the arm.

Sadly, secondary breast cancer can be treated, but it cannot be cured. The aim of treatment is to control the cancer, relieve the symptoms and maintain your quality of life. Many people can live a normal life for a number of years with secondary breast cancer.

Treatment options for breast cancer

There is a range of treatment options for somebody diagnosed with breast cancer. These can include:

  • Surgery
  • Chemotherapy
  • Radiotherapy
  • Hormone (endocrine) therapy
  • Targeted (biological) therapy
  • Bisphosphonates
Being breast aware

You will often find that one breast is smaller than the other, and that your breasts may feel different at different times in the month – this is often a result of hormones. It is also common for breasts to feel lumpy just before your period.  

Breast Cancer Now are encouraging people to follow three steps regularly to ensure that any signs of breast cancer or other conditions are detected as early as possible:

  • Touch your breasts: can you feel anything new or unusual?
  • Look for changes: does anything look different to you?
  • Check any new or unusual changes with a GP

Most breast lumps are benign (non-cancerous) and are likely to have a common cause such as being a fibroadenoma (a lump that develops most often during puberty) or a cyst (fluid filled sac that develops as your breasts age). Due to female hormones, breast pain and discharge is common, however, if you notice anything usual, you should contact your GP.

Delays in diagnosis

A delay in diagnosing breast cancer may occur as a result of:

  • A failure to spot symptoms
  • A failure to refer the patient to a specialist
  • A failure to perform a biopsy
  • A failure to investigate symptoms properly
  • A failure to refer the patient for the correct scans

If you or your family have been affected by the late diagnosis or misdiagnosis of breast cancer, you may be able to pursue a claim for compensation. If you would like to speak to our Clinical Negligence and Personal Injury team, submit an enquiry here.

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