Introduction to breast cancer
In this section, you can find information on:
- The breast and breast cancer
- The treatment options available
- Specific information on brachytherapy and the procedure
- The healthcare professionals involved in delivering brachytherapy
- Potential benefits of brachytherapy
- Potential side effects to consider
- Frequently asked questions
- Useful questions to ask your doctor
About the breast
The breast is made up of different types of tissues:
- Fat cells
- Connective tissue, which helps support the breast
- Glandular tissue, which produces milk
What is breast cancer?
Breast cancer occurs when abnormal cells develop within the breast tissue.
Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer affecting women. It more commonly affects women over the age of 50 than younger women.1 Breast cancer can affect men, but this is quite rare.
What are the typical symptoms of breast cancer?
Breast cancer is usually first noticed as a painless lump in the breast tissue.
Often, such lumps will be benign (non-cancerous), but in some cases it may turn out to be breast cancer.
It is therefore important to regularly check the breasts for any lumps and talk to a healthcare
professional if you find anything unusual.2
Other potential symptoms of breast cancer include:2
- Changes in the size or shape of a breast
- Changes in skin of the breast
- Thickening of the breast tissue
- Swelling around the armpit
The exact causes of breast cancer are not yet fully understood. However, there are a number of known risk factors that can make some women more likely to develop breast cancer than others.
These risk factors include:2
- Age – older women over the age of 50 are more likely to develop breast cancer than women aged less than 50 years.
- Previous breast cancer – women who have already had breast cancer are at a greater risk of developing a new tumor in the breast.
- Genetics – increased levels of estrogen in the body can increase a woman’s risk of breast cancer.
- Hormones – increased levels of oestrogen in the body can increase a woman’s risk of breast cancer.
- Lifestyle – factors such as being overweight and drinking more than the recommended alcohol intake can increase the risk of breast cancer developing.
What tests are used to confirm a diagnosis?
Self-awareness and regular breast self-examination are important to identify a possible breast cancer at an early stage.2
If you notice a lump in your breast or unusual changes in the breast, talk to your healthcare professional. In many western countries, older women are regularly screened for breast cancer using a mammogram (X-ray of the breast tissue). This can help identify breast cancer at an early stage before a lump can be felt. If your healthcare professional suspects that you might have breast cancer, you will be referred to a specialist for further tests to confirm the diagnosis. The main tests used by doctors are shown in the table below.2
|Test||What's being tested?||What happens after?|
|An x-ray is taken to create an image of the breast tissue.||Changes in the breast tissue. These changes can sometimes be identified before a lump in the breast can be felt.||If a lump is identified, or if changes in the tissues are found that may indicate the early stages of breast cancer, further tests will be offered.|
|A specialist will use a gel on the breast and place an ultrasound device to create an image of the breast tissue.||Check to see if the lump is likely to be cancerous or not.||If the lump looks like it may be cancerous, you may be referred for a biopsy to confirm a diagnosis.|
|A small sample of tissue is taken from the breast.||Abnormal cancerous cells.||The tissue is examined under a microscope to identify if any cancer is present, and determine the best treatment options.|
|A simple blood test.||Check of liver and kidney function and for the presence of any chemicals in the blood indicating the presence of a tumor (known as tumor markers).||The results of the blood test will help determine the best treatment options.|
How do I know how advanced the cancer is?
Terms such as ‘staging’ or ‘grading’ are used by healthcare professionals to describe the level of progression of the cancer and help determine which treatment options might be best.
The various stages of breast cancer are summarized below.2
|Ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS)||0||Cancer cells are only present in the cells lining the milk ducts of the breast. DCIS may or may not develop into early breast cancer.|
|Early breast cancer||1||The tumor is less than 2cm in size and the lymph nodes in the armpit are not affected.|
|2||The tumor is between 2 and 5cm in size, or the lymph nodes in the armpit are affected, or both.|
|3||The tumor is larger than 5cm in size. It may also have spread the lymph nodes, as well as nearby surrounding breast tissues such as the muscle or skin.|
|Advanced (metastatic) breast cancer||4||The tumor can be any size, but has advanced and spread to other parts of the body.|
1. World Health Organization. World Cancer Report 2008. International Agency for Research on Cancer, Lyon, France.
2. National Cancer Institute. Available at: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/wyntk/breast/. Accessed: 2 February 2011.