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Breast Cancer – what you need to know
October 22, 2018, 12:50 pm

Breast cancer is a leading cause of cancer-related deaths in women, with almost 1.7 million cases diagnosed and more than half a million deaths every year. Breast cancer mostly affects older women, with the majority of patients being over the age of 50 when diagnosed, although around 1 in 5 breast cancers are diagnosed before the age of 50. Breast cancer in men is rare and makes up around one percent of breast cancer cases.

Breast cancer forms in the tissues of the breast, usually in the ducts (tubes that carry milk to the nipple) or lobules (glands that make milk). The exact reason why a cell becomes cancerous is unclear. It is thought that damages or alterations to certain genes in the cell makes them abnormal and begin to multiply out of control.

Risk Factors: Although breast cancer can develop for no apparent reason, there are certain risk factors that increase the chance of developing breast cancer. These include:

·         Increasing age. Risk of breast cancer increases with age. Most cases develop in women over the age of 50.

·         Family history. If you have close relatives who have or have had breast cancer. In particular, if they were aged under 50 when diagnosed.

·         A personal history of breast cancer. If you have had breast cancer in one breast, you have an increased risk of developing cancer in the other breast.

·         Having your first child at an older age. Women who give birth to their first child after age 30 may have an increased risk of breast cancer.

·         Not having breast-fed your children.

·         Having never been pregnant. Women who have never been pregnant have a greater risk of breast cancer than do women who have had one or more pregnancies.

·         Beginning your period at a younger age. Beginning your period before age 12 increases your risk of breast cancer.

·         Beginning menopause at an older age. If you began menopause at an older age, you are more likely to develop breast cancer.

·         Radiation exposure. If you received radiation treatments to your chest as a child or young adult, your risk of breast cancer is increased.

·         Postmenopausal hormone therapy. Women who take hormone therapy medications that combine estrogen and progesterone to treat the signs and symptoms of menopause have an increased risk of breast cancer. The risk of breast cancer decreases when women stop taking these medications.

·         Obesity. Being obese increases your risk of breast cancer.

·         Drinking alcohol. Drinking alcohol increases the risk of breast cancer.

·         Inherited genes that increase cancer risk. Certain gene mutations that increase the risk of breast cancer can be passed from parents to children. The most well-known gene mutations are referred to as BRCA1 and BRCA2. These genes can greatly increase your risk of breast cancer and other cancers, but they do not make cancer inevitable.

Symptoms: The usual first symptom is a painless lump in the breast. Most breast lumps are not cancerous (malignant). Most breast lumps are fluid-filled cysts or fibroadenomas (a clumping of glandular tissue) which are non-cancerous (benign). However, you should always see a doctor if a lump develops, as the breast lump may be cancerous.

Other symptoms which may be noticed in the affected breast include:

·         Change in the size, shape or appearance of a breast

·         Changes to the skin over the breast, such as dimpling

·         A newly inverted nipple

·         Peeling, scaling, crusting or flaking of the pigmented area of skin surrounding the nipple (areola) or breast skin

·         Discharge from the nipple

·         Swelling or a lump in the armpit

·         Redness or pitting of the skin over your breast, like the skin of an orange

You should see your doctor if you experience any of these symptoms. However, it is important to remember that these symptoms may also be caused by other conditions.

Outlook: The outlook is best in those who are diagnosed when the cancer is still small and has not spread. In general, the more advanced the cancer, then the less chance that treatment will be curative. However, treatment can often slow the progress of the cancer.

Precautions: Among the precautions you could take are:

  • Awareness: Women may choose to become familiar with their breasts by occasionally inspecting their breasts during a breast self-exam for breast awareness. If there is a new change, lumps or other unusual signs in your breasts, talk to your doctor promptly. Breast awareness cannot prevent breast cancer, but it may help you to better understand the normal changes that your breasts undergo and identify any unusual signs and symptoms.
  • Screening for breast cancer: Mammography is a special X-ray test and aims to detect breast cancer at an early stage when treatment is most likely to be curative. 
  • Exercise most days of the week. Aim for at least 30 minutes of exercise on most days of the week with the aim of maintaining a healthy weight.
  • Limit postmenopausal hormone therapy. Combination hormone therapy may increase the risk of breast cancer. To reduce the risk of breast cancer, use the lowest dose of hormone therapy possible for the shortest amount of time.


Dr. Justin Stephen
MBBS, MS, FRCS (Edinburg)
General Surgeon
BADR Al Samaa Medical Centre

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