05 Oct

5 October 2021

What is Breast Cancer?

Breast cancer is a type of cancer that starts in the breast. Cancer starts when cells begin to grow out of control. Breast cancer cells usually form a tumor that can often be seen on an x-ray or felt as a lump. Breast cancer occurs almost entirely in women, but men can get breast cancer, too.

It is important to understand that most breast lumps are benign and not cancer (malignant). Non-cancerous breast tumors are abnormal growths but they do not spread outside of the breast. They are not life threatening, but some types of benign breast lumps can increase a woman’s risk of getting breast cancer.

Where does breast cancer starts

Breast cancers can start from different parts of the breast. Most breast cancers begin in the ducts that carry milk to the nipple (ductal cancers) while some start in the glands that make breast milk (lobular cancers)

There are also other types of breast cancer that are less common like phyllodes tumor and angiosarcoma. Although many types of breast cancer can cause a lump in the breast, not all do. Many breast cancers are also found on screening mammograms which can detect cancers at an earlier stage often before they can be felt and before symptoms develop.

What are your risks of developing breast cancer?

Every woman is potentially at risk of developing breast cancer. However, there are certain factors that place women at a higher risk. These factors include:

  • Family history. If you have close blood relative(s) (mother, sibling, child, or maternal grandmother) who have been diagnosed with breast cancer you could be at a higher risk.
  • Age. The risk of developing breast cancer increases with age. One out of eight cases of aggressive breast cancers is found in women younger than 45, while the risk in women between the ages of 30 to 39 is 44%.
  • Personal history. Women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer before have a 3-4 times increased risk of developing new cancer on the other breast or in another part of the same breast.
  • Radiation therapy to the chest at an early age. Having radiation therapy to the chest area as a child or young adult to treat another type of cancer significantly increases the breast cancer risk. The risk increase seems to be highest in cases where patients received radiation during their teen years when while the breasts were still developing.
  • Dense breast tissue. Women with dense breast tissue (as identified on a mammogram) have more glandular tissue and less fatty tissue and are, therefore, at a higher risk of breast cancer. Unfortunately, dense breast tissue can also make it harder for doctors to spot problems on mammograms, which makes regular self-examination and regular screening even more important.
  • Lifestyle factors. Studies have shown that breast cancer risk can increase as a result of the amount of alcohol a woman drinks, while smoking is also associated with a small increase in breast cancer risk.

Common symptoms of breast cancer may include:

  • New lump in the breast or underarm (armpit).
  • Thickening or swelling of part of the breast.
  • Irritation or dimpling of breast skin.
  • Redness or flaky skin in the nipple area or the breast.
  • Pulling in of the nipple or pain in the nipple area.
  • Nipple discharge other than breast milk, including blood.
  • Any change in the size or the shape of the breast.
  • Pain in any area of the breast.

Keep in mind that these symptoms may also indicate other conditions that are not cancer.

If you have any signs or symptoms that worry you, please visit your nearest health care centre and get checked.

www.cancer.org.za                         www.uasa.org.za

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