Breast cancer is, by far, the most common cancer in the UK; as of 2013, there have been 150 cases diagnosed every day. With that in mind, it’s important that we all take it seriously. That’s why it’s great that this month is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and it’s in full swing. The purpose of Breast Cancer Awareness Month is to provide support and information to women, so, we’re sharing some key points to keep you informed.

What is breast cancer?

Put simply, breast cancer is the uncontrolled growth of breast cells caused by a mutation in the gene that’s responsible for cell regulation. Breast cancer occurs when these extra cells form a malignant tumour; a tumour that can spread to other parts of the body and begin to affect healthy cells.

Catching it early

Breast cancer has a number of stages; spotting it at the earliest stage possible will make treatment much easier. Most breast cancer cases are caught in stage 0. This is when there are cancer cells present in the breast but they haven’t begun to spread or affect healthy cells surrounding them. Spotting the signs at this stage greatly increase chances of recovery.

What to look for

There are lots of signs and symptoms of breast cancer; a lump is just one, and sometimes, won’t be the most obvious sign. Things to watch for include:

  • A change in size or shape that’s not linked to other causes such as hormone changes.
  • Constant pain in your breast or armpit – it’s worth bearing in mind that this is not a common symptom of breast cancer in its early phases. It is usually indicative of a cyst rather than cancer or is related to your menstrual cycle. The time to see your doctor is if the pain becomes severe or persists.
  • A lump that feels different to the rest of breast tissue – this is the most common symptom of breast cancer and is usually the easiest one to spot. Most of the time they tend to be painless but uncomfortable. Often, lumps turn out to be benign masses but if you do feel something different it’s important to see a doctor.
  • Swelling in your armpit or collarbone – this is a symptom of a particularly aggressive form of breast cancer, so it’s important to get this checked out immediately. It can be caused when cancer has spread to lymph nodes, leaving the rest of your body vulnerable to cancer cells.
  • Redness or rash on the skin or puckering – this is often described as skin feeling like orange peel. It is most often caused by a common infection called mastitis which is easily treated with antibiotics. However, if symptoms persist for over a week go back to the doctor as this can be caused by inflammatory breast cancer.
  • Nipples becoming inverted - this can be caused by breast cancer, as well as other changes like puckering and redness of the skin.
  • Discharge from the nipple – this is a common symptom for pregnant women and new mothers. However, when not linked to pregnancy, more often than not nipple discharge is an early sign of cancer, especially when the discharge contains blood. However, there are a number of causes of nipple discharge, and if it isn’t present with one of the above symptoms, it’s likely to be another condition.

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How to prevent it

Breast cancer is closely linked to genetics; if you have a close family member who has suffered from breast cancer, your risk is increased. However, there are plenty of things you can do to decrease your risk of developing cancer that are simple, everyday lifestyle changes:

  • Eat well – like most things, eating well can vastly decrease your risk of developing breast cancer, as well as other cancers and diseases, such as heart disease and diabetes. Be sure to eat a healthy, balanced diet that doesn’t include too much refined sugar and processed foods. Following a diet such as the Mediterranean diet can be hugely beneficial.
  • Limit alcohol – try and follow NHS recommended guidelines for alcohol consumption in order to reduce your risk of developing breast cancer and other diseases.
  • Don’t smoke – cigarettes often contain carcinogens which are chemicals that can accelerate the development of cancer cells. There is now plenty of evidence that smoking is linked to breast cancer, especially in premenopausal women. Again, this is one of the best things you can do for your overall health.
  • Hormone therapy for menopausal symptoms can contribute to breast cancer – make sure you limit your doses and don’t stay on hormone therapies for more than 5 years at a time. If you do decide to stay on hormone therapies for an extended period make sure you are closely monitored by your doctor and take minimal doses.
  • Control your weight - being overweight or obese increases the risk of breast cancer and also contributes to other conditions. This is especially true if obesity occurs later in life, particularly after menopause.
  • Breastfeed – breastfeeding has been seen to have a positive effect on breast health and cancer risk. The longer you breastfeed, the longer the protective effects are thought to last.

Recent statistics show that 65% of women survive their breast cancer diagnosis by 20 years or more. Regular screenings and heightened awareness are the main reasons for this. That’s why it always pays to be aware of the risks associated with breast cancer, for yourself and your loved ones. That’s what Breast Cancer Awareness Month is all about. Get involved by throwing a Big Pink or making a simple donation to support those suffering, fund research and feel good doing it!

Page last reviewed on 17/10/2016

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