Breast cancer: What you should know

Breast cancer: the facts

  • 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 3,542 cases are diagnosed and 760 die from the disease in Ireland.
  • 34 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.
  • 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.
  • If you are worried about your risk of breast cancer, contact your family doctor.
  • Breast cancer survival rates are continuing to increase each year. There are more than 2,533 women living in Ireland currently, who have survived breast cancer.

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. You can find out more about the breasts and the lymphatic system here.

Risks of getting Breast Cancer

This section is about things that affect the risk of breast cancer. Even if you have one or more of the risk factors below, it doesn’t mean you will definitely develop breast cancer.

Breast cancer is not fully understood but we do know some of the risk factors that increase a woman’s chance of getting breast cancer. Knowing about these risks can help you to take important steps to look after yourself.

Key Risk Factors

  1. Being born female- the female hormones estrogen and progesterone can promote breast cancer cell growth.
  2. Starting your periods at a younger age or having a late menopause increases the risk of breast cancer.
  3. A family history – women who have relatives with breast cancer have a higher risk of developing the disease themselves. Risk increases with the number of close relatives diagnosed. But even so, almost nine out of 10 breast cancers occur in women with no close relatives diagnosed with the disease.
  4. Getting older – the risk of developing breast cancer goes up with age. The older you are, the greater your chances of developing the disease. Around four out of five breast cancers occur in women aged 50 and over.
  5. Hormones and reproduction – the female sex hormone, oestrogen, can affect the development of breast cancer. Many of the things that affect the risk of breast cancer can be explained through their effect on hormone levels. Taking hormone replacement therapy (HRT) or oral contraceptives (also known as the pill) increases the risk of breast cancer. But HRT is an effective treatment for menopausal symptoms, and the pill also reduces the risk of ovarian and womb cancers. If you are considering starting or stopping HRT or the Pill, or if you have any concerns, see your doctor.
  6. Having no children – having children and breast feeding both lower the chances of developing the disease. The more children a woman has, and the younger she is when she has them, the lower her risk.
  7. Having dense breasts –  Breast density is one of the strongest independent risk-factors for developing breast cancer, stronger even than age or family history, with women with ‘extremely dense’ breast tissue being four-to-six times more likely to develop breast cancer compared to women with ‘mostly fatty’ breasts. High breast density can also have the effect of ‘masking’ breast cancers, as they also show up as white on a mammogram, and are thus more difficult to see.

You can find more detailed information about the risks of breast cancer here.

Be breast aware

One of the most important things that you can do for your health is to get to know your breasts. Breast cancer is one of the most common female cancers so it is important to look after your breasts by being breast aware. Being breast aware means getting to know how your breasts look and feel so you know what is normal for you. You can then feel more confident about noticing any unusual changes.

Women themselves find most lumps. Remember that most breast lumps are not due to cancer but you don’t know if you don’t ask.

Even though it is uncommon, men can also get breast cancer so they need to be breast aware too.

Watch this short video to learn how to check your breasts:

Early detection provides the best possible chance of surviving the disease.

How can I be breast aware?

Breast awareness means becoming familiar with your breasts and how they look and feel at different times of the month. Try to get used to looking at and feeling your breasts regularly. By doing this you will be able to notice any changes that aren’t usual for you.

Use times like having a bath or shower to notice how your breasts look and feel. Running a soapy hand over your breasts and armpit helps you to feel the texture of your breast more easily. You may notice that your breasts change in size, shape or in how they feel at different times of the month.

Your breasts may become lumpier or more tender around the time of your menstrual period, for example. As you become familiar with your breasts you’ll become more confident in knowing what is normal for you.

What to look out for?

  • Any lumps, thickening or bumpy areas in the breast or armpit that seem different from other breast tissue. This is very important if it is new.
  • Any changes in the size, shape or feel of the breast (it may be normal for you to have one breast larger than the other).
  • Changes to the nipple, such as crusting, ulceration, bleeding or a change in the direction or shape of the nipple.
  • An unusual discharge from one or both of your nipples.
  •  Veins that are standing out more than usual for you.
  •  Any puckering, dimpling or redness of the skin of the breast.
  •  Swelling in your armpit or around your collarbone.
  •  Pain or discomfort that is new to you and felt only on one side.

Breast cancer resources

Download a free infographic poster about breast cancer here.

How can I reduce the risk of getting breast cancer?

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 – 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.
  • Breast feed your baby.
  • 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.

Other breast cancer resources.

To download this information in leaflet format, click here.

To download Advice and Exercises Following Breast Surgery please click here.

To download Understanding Breast Changes, please click here.

To download a free infographic poster about breast cancer click here.

To ask a Marie Keating Nurse a specific question, please click here.