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How Breast Cancer is Diagnosed | Breast Check and Treatment
The chances that you or someone you know have been affected by breast cancer are high. As the second most diagnosed cancer in Australia that’s no surprise.
It’s estimated that one in eight females and one in 668 males will be diagnosed by the time they are 85. The average age of diagnosis is 62 years old.
However, thanks to advances in screening, diagnosis and treatment, Australia boasts one of the best breast cancer survival rates in the world. This should only continue to improve.
Here we find out more.
What is breast cancer?
Within the breast there are small sacs (lobules) and tubes (ducts) surrounded by fatty and supportive tissue. Lobules produce breast milk and ducts carry the milk to the nipple.
Breast cancer occurs when abnormal and uncontrollable growth happens in the cells that line the ducts and lobules.
Being abreast of change
Being aware of any changes in your breasts is important. Early detection can result in better long-term outcomes and improved survival rates.
It’s recommended that you carry out a routine breast check around the same time each month. This will account for any regular hormonal changes and help you learn what’s ‘normal’ for you.
How to check your breasts
- Stand in front of a mirror with your arms by your side. Note the shape, appearance and colour of your breasts and nipples.
- Raise your arms and note any differences. Look for signs of any breast swelling, puckering or skin dimpling and any changes in the nipples.
- As a general rule, be aware of any changes to your breasts’ shape and colour, any evidence of redness or swelling or any nipple discharge.
- Using the first few finger pads of your hand, apply light, medium and firm pressure to check the entire breast, as well as the armpit area and from your collarbone to below your bra line
- Feel for any lumps, thickening, hardness or general change
- Lie down and bend one elbow and place it above or behind your head. With the other hand feel your entire breast area as well as the armpit area and from your collarbone to below your bra line.
- Use light, medium and firm pressure with a flat hand. As with standing, check for lumps hardness, dimpling or general change. Be aware of any areas that are painful or sensitive to the touch.
If you notice any changes in your breast, head to your GP for further examination.
Diagnoses of breast cancer
Regular self-checks are an important habit to establish. However, looking ‘behind the scenes’ is equally important.
Australia’s national breast screening program, BreastScreen Australia, is helping to drive this. The program offers a free mammogram every two years to women aged 40 and over and actively invites women aged 50-74 to do the same.
BreastScreen Australia aims to increase early detection of breast cancer which will reduce illness and death
A mammogram is a low dose x-ray examination of the breasts and is one of the most effective ways to detect cancer even before symptoms or signs appear.
Ultrasounds are generally recommended for further investigation of any problems found by a mammogram, or to establish the cause of any visible symptoms or changes in the breast.
An ultrasound is a painless scan that can help to determine if a lump in the breast is a cyst filled with fluid or a solid tumour.
Ultrasounds are often recommended for younger women who have symptoms. This is because younger breast tissue is denser which makes it harder to detect any abnormalities.
If breast cancer is suspected, a biopsy will be performed using a small needle to remove a sample of the suspicious breast tissue. This sample will be sent to the lab for further examination.
Treatment for breast cancer
There are different types of breast cancers. Therefore, the treatment prescribed will be dependent on the diagnosis and extent of the cancer. This will vary from person to person.
Treatment options may include:
Chemotherapy is one of the most common treatments for breast cancer. Chemotherapy drugs may be taken by mouth or injectted into the veins (intravenously).
These anti-cancer drugs target the cancer cells causing them to shrink by interrupting the cells’ ability to divide and grow. Chemotherapy is often used before surgery.
Chemotherapy treatment times vary depending on the type and stage of the cancer.
There are two types of surgery used to treat breast cancer.
Breast conserving surgery involves the removal of the part of the breast that’s affected by cancer, as well as the removal of one or more lymph nodes from the armpit.
A mastectomy completely removes one or both breasts.
Radiotherapy is generally recommended for patients who have had breast conserving surgery, post mastectomy or if the cancer has spread to the sentinel nodes in the armpit.
Radiotherapy uses high energy x rays to target and kill cancer cells. Radiotherapy is usually administered Monday to Friday for three to six weeks and only takes a matter of minutes.
Hormone therapy drugs are often used for people with early breast cancer. They work by reducing the levels of the female hormones (oestrogen and/or progesterone) that some cancer cells used to grow.
Targeted therapy drugs attack specific proteins inside cancer cells to destroy them or slow down their growth.
If you have any concerns about your breasts or simply want some guidance on examination and breast symptom assessment, contact us today. Our GP’s work with the utmost discretion to address your concerns and look after your health.