This month is Breast Cancer Awareness month. Breast cancer is the most common cancer in Australian women, affecting more than 15,000 Australians each year. Researchers are discovering how and why breast cancers start. This extensive research is helping to advance better treatments for breast cancer.
Breast cancer research
Current Breast cancer research is focussing on:
Revealing the link between breast stem cells, breast development and breast cancer. Discovering how the female hormones oestrogen and progesterone are linked. Indicators suggest that they lead to an increased risk.
Testing the effectiveness of new anti-cancer medications.
Leading clinical trials aimed at improving treatments.
Developing new ways to match breast cancer patients to the best treatment for their disease.
What is breast cancer?
Breast cancer arises from cells within the breast that accumulate changes to their DNA. These genetic mutations allow them to grow in an uncontrolled manner.
The structure of the breast is designed and works to produce and secrete milk from the nipple. Most breast cancers arise from cells in the breast ducts, which would usually transport milk to the nipple. Some cancers develop from cells in the milk-producing lobules themselves. It is rare for cancers to come from other structures in the breast such as fat or lymphatic vessels.
Breast cancers begin as a small, confined tumour. These can grow and spread throughout the breast. Early growths that are ‘pre-invasive’ as they have not left the ducts are termed DCIS, short for ‘Ductal Carcinoma In Situ. Invasive cancers are often described as ductal or lobular, based on their appearance using a microscope.
Some breast cancer cells may develop further changes that then results in their escape from the breast. They travel through lymphatic vessels to lymph nodes, or they may spread through the blood to other organs. This process is called ‘metastasis’.
Breast cancer risk factors
Most breast cancers arise ‘spontaneously’, with no identifiable reason. Around 5% of Australian breast cancer cases are ‘hereditary’. This means the patient carries an inherited breast cancer risk gene, such as BRCA1 or BRCA2. This puts them at elevated risk of breast and ovarian cancer.
Other factors that increase a person’s risk of developing breast cancer include:
Gender: females are at a much higher risk developing breast cancer, but breast cancer can occur in men
Older age: like many cancers, the risk of developing breast cancer increases with age – about 80% arise after age 50
Exposure of breast cells to female hormones Excessive alcohol consumption
Exposure to high doses of radiation
How is breast cancer treated?
Breast cancers that are confined to the breast, or have not spread beyond the lymph nodes can often be cured. Treatment depends on the precise tumour features and may include:
- Radiation therapy
- Hormonal therapy, that blocks the action of oestrogen
Metastatic breast cancer, which has spread further in the body, is often treated with chemotherapy or hormonal therapy. The treatment chosen will depend on the tumour itself and the patient
In some cases, treatments are designed to specifically target particular molecules that are promoting cancer growth.
Some of the signs to look out for which may indicate Breast Cancer include:
- Swelling of all or part of a breast (even if no distinct lump is felt)
- Skin irritation or dimpling (sometimes looking like an orange peel)
- Breast or nipple pain.
- Nipple retraction (turning inward)
- Redness, scaliness, or thickening of the nipple or breast skin.
- Nipple discharge (other than breastmilk)
What to do if you have concerns?
If you have any concerns at all you should make an appointment to visit your GP. They will be able to refer you to the right people for correct investigation. They will also be able to show you how to self-examine which is a vital step in maintaining the health of your breasts.