What is Breast Cancer?
ORLA EDWARDS >
Trainee SolicitorThu 5 October 2023
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, an international health campaign organised by breast cancer charities. The aim of the campaign is to increase awareness, aid prevention efforts, and raise money to ensure vital cancer research continues.
Orla Edwards, Trainee Solicitor in our Clinical Negligence Department, discusses the formation of breast cancer, the impact of detection in the early stages of breast cancer, and the importance of Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
How does Breast Cancer begin?
Breast cancer is a disease in which abnormal cells in the breast grow and divide in an uncontrollable or rapid manner.
DNA is a critical factor in the development of all cancers and cells in the breasts contain DNA like all other cells in the body. DNA is copied when cells divide, but occasionally a mutation (genetic change) can occur during the process. This mutation may be passed to other cells, eventually leading to abnormal cell growth.
The abnormal cells continue to accumulate forming a lump or mass, which can materialise into a malignant (cancerous) tumour. Tumours can then metastasize (spread to secondary areas in the body). There are different types of breast cancer, determined by which cells in the breast become cancerous. Most commonly, breast cancer begins in the ducts or lobules of the breast.
Breast cancer gene (BRCA)
BRCA1 and BRCA2 produce proteins that assist in repairing damaged DNA and act as tumour suppressors. Everyone inherits two copies of each of these genes, one copy from each parent. However, a mutation in either of these genes can significantly increase the risk of cancer developing, particularly breast and ovarian cancer in women and breast and prostate cancer in men.
The cause of breast cancer is unknown and therefore, not always preventable. However, at least 1 in 3 breast cancers are preventable. It is known that maintaining a healthy lifestyle is a positive contribution to preventing the development of breast cancer in some cases.
Testing is available for those with an increased risk of having an inherited gene mutation. Those at risk include individuals with a personal or family history of cancers associated with the BRCA gene.
If a mutation is identified, the individual affected will have the choice of taking early prevention measures to reduce their risk of developing breast cancer. They will also be offered routine screening for breast cancer on a more regular basis than the general population.
There are some treatments available to reduce the chances of breast cancer development in those at higher risk. These include a surgery called a mastectomy, to remove breast tissue, which can reduce the risk of breast cancer by up to 90%, and medication.
Generally, there is a lengthy period between changes in the breast tissue and the development of breast cancer, which is why early detection in breast cancer cases is vital in ensuring the best chance of patient survival.
There are several ways to monitor breast health including attending routine screenings and regularly examining your own breasts.
Breast screenings are carried out using X-rays, called mammograms. The breasts are scanned for any abnormalities or early signs of breast cancer, even where a patient is not presenting with any symptoms. If any abnormalities are found a diagnostic mammogram may be requested to investigate further. Ultrasounds are also used to produce images of breast tissue.
Due to their ability to detect breast cancer in its earliest stages, mammograms aid in lowering the risk of dying from breast cancer and save around 1,300 lives each year in the UK.
Women will automatically receive an invitation for breast screening between the ages of 50 and 53, as most cases are diagnosed in women over 50 years old. A routine mammogram will be offered every 3 years until the age of 71. Trans men, trans women and individuals that identify as non-binary may be automatically invited. However, you may need to discuss the screening with your GP or request an appointment from your local breast screening service.
Those at a moderate or high risk should start attending mammograms between the ages of 30 and 40 annually.
It is important to ensure that you are a registered patient with a GP surgery to receive your screening invitation.
Healthcare professionals encourage adult women to perform self-examinations at least once a month. The most common specific location for invasive breast cancers in the UK is the upper-outer quadrant of the breast.
What are the symptoms of breast cancer?
Symptoms can include, but are not limited to:
- A lump in the breast or underarm
- An area of thickened tissue or swelling in either breast
- Dimpling on the skin of the breast
- Irritation or a rash around the nipple
- Discharge, including blood, other than breast milk
- Changes in the size or shape of the breasts
- Pain in any area of the breast
If you have symptoms make an appointment with your GP as soon as possible, even if your most recent breast screening was clear. Do not wait for your next routine screening.
It is possible to identify lumps and abnormalities within breast tissue that are benign (non-cancerous) growths, such as cysts and fibroadenomas. However, it is possible that complex fibroadenomas develop into malignancies over time. It is never worth running the risk of leaving symptoms unchecked.
If your doctor has any concerns about your screening results, or subsequent symptoms, you will be referred for a biopsy to extract a sample of the affected area of breast tissue for examination.
Breast Cancer Awareness Month is a chance to encourage individuals to recognise the risks and signs of breast cancer and the medical support available. Reducing the risks posed by breast cancer is possible through prevention measures and detecting and treating the condition in its early stages.
Campaigns such as this also inspire essential widespread funding efforts which support research into the condition, its behaviour, and possible treatments to protect as many individuals as possible from the effects of breast cancer.
If you have received an incorrect diagnosis or experienced a delay in diagnosis of breast cancer, please get in touch with our clinical negligence department by clicking the 'contact us' button at the top of this page or to find out more please click here.