In 2012, the latest year for which statistics are available, 42,469 women were diagnosed with breast cancer in England. This represents over 30% of all female cancer diagnoses, far outstripping the next major cancer to affect women (lung cancer with 16,356 diagnoses).
Women at risk
Eight out of ten of these new diagnoses were found in women over the age of 50, the highest risk group.
Any woman aged between 50 and 70 is entitled to screening every three years as part of the NHS Breast Screening Programme. Women over 70 should contact their GP’s to arrange for even more regular check-ups.
Aside from age, there are a number of factors that can increase your individual risk of developing breast cancer. By far the most powerful indicator of risk is your family history.
Though most cases of breast cancer aren’t hereditary we do know that there are at least three genetic markers that might indicate a pre-disposition to develop breast cancer.
As a general rule any close female relative with a breast cancer diagnosis would place you firmly in a higher risk group.
Women who smoke are much more likely to fall victim and the amount of alcohol you consume will also affect your chances.
Studies have also shown that obesity increases the risk as does height; for reasons as yet to be understood, tall women are more likely to develop breast cancer than their smaller contemporaries.
Prolonged exposure to increased levels of oestrogen, like taking birth control or HRT is also a factor.
Early detection improves outcomes
The earlier a diagnosis can be made the better. While a cancerous growth is self-contained in the breast the options of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy remain open depending on the type, size and position of the tumour.
Once it has metastasised to other parts of the body the cancer becomes incurable.
The most effective detector of a new cancer growth is you. You are your own best defence.
The first step is to become what specialists have coined ‘breast aware’. You should take some time to really understand the look and feel of your breasts as they are now. Look at them in a mirror and note their size and shape.
What to check for
Of course as you get older and your body goes through various changes, major and minor, your breasts will also change but it is the pace that would indicate any cause for concern.
You should look for the appearance of
Lumps or growths in either breast
Changes to the size or overall shape of either breast
A discharge from the nipples, which may contain blood
Dimpling on the skin of your breasts or a rash around the nipple
Changes in the shape and size of your nipple (becoming sunken for example)
Breast pain is not usually a sign of breast cancer.
Each or any of these symptoms may be caused by other factors, but are worth discussing with your doctor.
It is important not to stress about anything unnecessarily; most lumps and growths (90%) found in the breast will turn out to be benign.
Be vigilant, be safe, be aware of your own body, it just makes good sense.
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