Breast cancer awareness is important for women of all ages, and regular breast checks are important even if you’re having regular mammograms.
You don’t need to be an expert or use a special technique to check your breasts. Take the time to get to know the normal look and feel of your breasts as part of everyday activities like showering, dressing, putting on body lotion or simply looking in the mirror.
What is breast cancer?
The breast is made up of millions of cells. Breast cancer develops when a single cell or group of cells begin to multiply out of control and forms a tumour. The breasts consist of fatty tissue and lobules that are connected to the nipple by ducts.
Breast cancer usually starts in cells that line a duct or lobule. Sometimes cells can break away and travel to other parts of the body, starting new tumours.
The facts about breast cancer
- Breast cancer is the second most common cancer in women in Ireland, skin cancer being the most common. However, the number of breast cancer cases is on the increase.
- Every year around 3,704 cases are diagnosed and 724 die from the disease in Ireland.
- 37 men in Ireland are diagnosed with breast cancer each year.
- Breast cancer is most common in women from 50 years onwards, but it can be diagnosed at a younger age. In fact, 23% of women are diagnosed between the ages of 20-50 years.
- 1 in 7 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime.
- Breast cancer, when caught early, has the highest five year net survival rate, of 85%, but is the most common cancer in women in Ireland.
Early detection is key
Knowing what is normal for you will help you to detect any new breast or nipple changes.
Breast changes to look out for include:
– New lump or lumpiness, especially if it’s only in one breast
– A change in the size or shape of the breast
– A change to the nipple, such as crusting, ulcer, redness or inversion
– A nipple discharge that occurs without squeezing
– A change in the skin of the breast such as redness or dimpling
– An unusual pain that doesn’t go away.
Nine out of ten breast changes aren’t due to cancer, but it’s important to see a doctor to be sure. If you find a breast change that is unusual for you, see your GP without delay.
Reduce your breast cancer risk
You may help to reduce your risk and look after your health generally by:
- Maintaining a healthy weight by combining a balanced, low fat diet with regular physical activity. Being overweight after the menopause increases a woman’s risk of breast cancer.
- Doing regular exercise – research shows that women who are physically active are less likely to develop breast cancer than less active women. Try to do at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity five times or more a week. The more active you are, the more you can reduce the risk.
- Not drinking too much alcohol – The more you cut down on alcohol, the more you can reduce the risk of breast cancer and many other cancers.
- If you have have a new baby, breastfeed if you can.
- If you smoke – stop. If you don’t – don’t start. Some research suggests that smoking increases the risk of breast cancer.
- Getting to know your breasts. If you notice a change, see your GP as soon as possible. Nine out of ten breast changes are not due to cancer but it is very important to make sure.
Men can get breast cancer too
Often people are surprised to hear that men can get breast cancer. This may be because they don’t think of men as having breasts. In fact, both men and women have breast tissue and ducts behind the nipple.
During puberty in girls, female hormones cause their breasts to grow and milk-producing glands or lobes are formed at the end of the ducts. In boys, male hormones prevent breasts from growing.
Male breast cancer is rare. About 37 men are diagnosed with breast cancer each year in Ireland. The figure for women is about 3,600 each year.
- Age. Most men who get breast cancer are over 60, although younger men can be affected.
- High oestrogen levels. High oestrogen levels can increase the risk. High oestrogen can happen with chronic liver damage, obesity and some genetic conditions.
- Obesity. Being very overweight (obese) seems to increase the risk of male breast cancer, especially for men over 35 years of age.
- Kleinfelter’s syndrome. This is a rare genetic condition where a man is born with an extra female chromosome. For men who have this syndrome the risk of breast cancer is 20 times greater than the average.
- Radiation. Men who have had repeated and prolonged exposure to radiation can be at an increased risk of developing breast cancer. For example, radiotherapy treatment to the chest wall, particularly at a young age.
- Significant family history or genetic link. Men with a significant family history of female breast cancer are also at a higher risk of breast cancer. This includes a mother or sister, particularly if the relative was under the age of 40 when diagnosed.
What are the symptoms of breast cancer in men?
- A painless lump in the breast – this is the most common symptom
- Nipple discharge (often blood-stained)
- A tender or pulled-in nipple
- Ulceration or swelling of the breast
- Swollen lymph glands under the arm
How to do a breast check
It is a good idea to incorporate regular breast self checks into your routine. Use this Breast Cancer Awareness Month as a reminder to get started!
This helpful video from the Marie Keating Foundation guides you through how to complete a breast check. Why not add a reminder to your phone so you remember to do a breast check once a month?
Contact your GP immediately if you notice any changes.
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