The breasts are made up of fat, connective tissue, and gland tissue divided into lobes. The lobes (mammary glands) are where breast milk is produced. These are connected to the nipple through a network of small tubes called ducts.
Breasts come in many different shapes and sizes. They may also vary at different moments of the month. As women age, their breasts may become smaller and lose their firmness.
Knowing how your breasts feel normally will allow you to notice any changes. Your GP can tell you about the things you should look out for. Each woman's breasts are different and can change throughout a given month and throughout the woman's lifetime. For example, before menopause, the sensation you have in your breasts will vary at different times of the month.
Here are some possible changes you can be aware of:
- changes in breast shape
- malaise or pain
- changes in the nipple
If you notice any changes in your breasts, it is best to be examined by your GP. These changes can be because of a number of reasons other than cancer.
WHAT IS BREAST CANCER SCREENING?
Breast cancer is the most common cancer type in women. In general, however, it can be treated and cured if detected in time. Breast-cancer screening is a way to find breast cancer when the cancer growth is too small to be seen or felt. When screened, women undergo a mammogram, which is a type of X-ray.
Breast-cancer screening itself cannot prevent cancer. It can only find existing cancers. Studies have found that breast-cancer screening can reduce the number of cancer deaths by 20%. When cancers are found, they are often very small and have not spread to other parts of the body. In general, this means they are easier to treat.
However, breast-cancer screening does have its drawbacks. After screening, some patients may be diagnosed and treated for cancers that would not have caused them any problems. Screening can cause discomfort and worry in patients.
FAMILY HISTORY OF BREAST CANCER
Breast-cancer screening uses mammography (low-dose X-ray imaging) to find cancerous growths at an early point. Currently, women under the age of 50 are not routinely offered breast-cancer screening. The primary reason is that mammography is less effective at detecting cancer in pre-menopausal women. Women normally reach menopause at about age 50. However, some younger women who are at a high risk of developing breast cancer are screened. Generally, these women are given a new type of test called a digital mammogram.
If you believe you have a greater risk of developing breast cancer because of your family history, talk to your GP. Your GP can refer you to a breast clinic for assessment. A family history of breast cancer does not necessarily mean a woman will also have cancer. Most women with a family history never develop cancer.
OTHER REQUIRED EXAMINATIONS
Some of these tests may include:
- clinical examination - a doctor examines your breasts and lymph nodes
- mammogram - an X-ray taken of your breasts
- breast ultrasound - uses sound waves to create an image of your breasts
- breast biopsy - a small piece of tissue or cells (called a biopsy) is taken from any area showing an abnormality and is sent to a laboratory for analysis.
You results may come immediately or you may have to come back for them.
Most women would like to know more about:
- Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) - Women who undergo HRT for 5 or more years may slightly increase their chances of developing breast cancer. However, if you are having HRT you do not need to have more mammograms performed.
- Breast implants - Tell your radiology technician if you have these. Mammography techniques may need to be adapted in order for the largest volume of breast tissue to be examined by X-ray. It is unlikely that your breast implants will be damaged during a mammogram.
- Age - The risk of breast cancer increases with age. Almost half of all cases of breast cancer (45%) are found in women over the age of 65.
- Worry and anxiety - Care staff will try to calm and support you. If you are worried, you can talk through your feelings with our cancer-support specialists.
- Causes and risk factors - There are many different factors that may increase the chances of developing breast cancer.