Breast Cancer in women

Signs and symptoms of breast cancer

There are different stages of breast cancer and the earlier it is diagnosed and treated, the better the long-term prospects for women with the disease. 

Over the last 20 years, the chances of making a complete recovery from breast cancer have greatly improved. This is mainly because there is now much more effective treatment than in the past, but it is also due to the successful efforts to arrive at early diagnosis.

"In the UK, breast cancers are diagnosed earlier and treated more effectively than they were in the 1980s, and breast cancer mortality in middle age has been falling steeply, more so than in any other major European country" (*Beral Peto BMJ. 2010)

The National Breast Screening Programme which targets women aged 47-73, is an important way to detect cancer early and that around a third of breast cancers are now diagnosed through screening (The Department of Health's Improving Outcomes' A Strategy for Cancer - Third Annual Report December 2013), but it is not the only way breast cancer is detected and there is a need to continue to make women aware of the importance of breast awareness (for example by checking their breasts regularly).

Here, women discuss how they discovered their illness.

Most breast cancer is discovered by the woman herself or, in some cases, by her partner. When Janet found a lump, she showed it to her daughter who is a GP.

Tess said she’d always been aware she could get breast cancer because of her family history. Her father’s mother and mother had both had it. She found a lump at the age of 33 while she was on holiday.

Some women saw their GP straight away. Several also described the tests which were carried out before the diagnosis was confirmed.

For some women, it was a problem deciding when to be concerned about a lump in their breast. Several said they’d always had lumpy breasts before a period, and a few had attended hospital for lumps which turned out to be benign in the past. One woman said that the breast where she found the lump had always been larger than the other breast and that she had not noticed the change in it. Another discovered a lump while she was breastfeeding and one woman was diagnosed during pregnancy.

One young woman was only 18 when she developed breast cancer. It is extremely rare to develop breast cancer at such a young age. Consequently, although she consulted her GP soon after discovering the lump, it was not until she realised that it was growing very quickly that she was referred to hospital.

Other women discovered their breast cancer through screening (mammography), often as part of the national breast screening programme. One woman, however, had a mammogram as part of a clinical trial she was involved in, and another had gone for a routine annual check-up when she was diagnosed.

More experiences of breast cancer diagnosed through routine breast screening can be found on our Breast Screening section.

Although it is mostly true to say that breast cancer lumps are not painful, sometimes this is not the case and it was pain which first alerted women to the problem. One woman had inflammatory breast cancer and experienced both pain and an itchy nipple.

Breast cancer awareness includes noticing changes to the nipple. One woman with inflammatory breast cancer experienced some pain but became aware of a problem when she noticed that her nipple was inverted. Another woman who noticed changes in her nipple was discovered to have Paget's disease (a cancer that affects the nipple making it look like eczema). Individual participants reported breast hardness, a swollen breast and breast 'thickening'. Symptoms can also include dimpling of the skin on the breast, a blood stained discharge from the nipple, a rash on a nipple or surrounding area and a swelling or lump in the armpit.

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When breast cancer returns

Many of the women we interviewed had not had any recurrence of their original cancer. A few women, however, had developed pre-cancerous changes in the previously unaffected breast (DCIS or ductal carcinoma in situ) requiring further treatment. Gillian was shocked to find out she had DCIS in the same breast as she’d had invasive breast cancer, and had a mastectomy. Two women had developed second lumps which turned out to be new cancers rather than spread from the original cancer. One woman described the discovery of secondary cancer.

It can be shocking and upsetting to be told you have breast cancer again or DCIS. Gillian was ‘shocked and dumbfounded’ when she was diagnosed with DCIS a few years after having invasive breast cancer.

More experiences of DCIS can be found on our DCIS section.

We also have a section on breast cancer in men.
 
*Beral Peto BMJ. 2010 Aug 11;341'c4112. doi' 10.1136/bmj.c4112

Last reviewed May 2015.
Last updated May 2015.

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