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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 40 years, the breast cancer survival rate has doubled (Cancer Research UK 2014). 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.

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.

 

Janet had always feared getting breast cancer. Her daughter felt the lump and advised her to see...

Janet had always feared getting breast cancer. Her daughter felt the lump and advised her to see...

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I think breast cancer was something that I’d been scared of all my life. It was just something that loomed in the background and I thought, if ever I get breast cancer I don’t want treatment. I don’t want to have surgery. I shall just give in to it and die. That was just the thought that was going through my mind at times. And then suddenly found a lump. It wasn’t what I expected the lump to feel like. It was flattish and hardish. And quite, and it was big. And I thought, I persuaded myself it was perhaps a muscle in the breast, goodness knows. It was just the only thing I could think of. And I thought, right that’s probably what it is and it’ll go down in a few days. I’ve overdone it at the gym and it’ll go away.

We went on holiday and it didn’t go away. We came back and I went to visit my daughter, she’s a GP. And I said to her, “I’ve got a lump, I’m a little bit worried about it.” And she said, “Do you want me to look at it?” So without really thinking about the consequences and how it would affect her, I said, “Yes please,” you know. So she did, she examined me. And she was very calm and she said, “Yes,” she said, “I think perhaps you just ought to go and get it checked out with your GP as soon as you can.” And that was it, she said nothing more.

And I came home and what I didn’t know was that she and her husband left, because they, we were at my daughter-in-laws. And just up the road she absolutely burst into floods of tears. Because she knew as a GP that it was so big that she was afraid she wasn’t going to have a mother in a few months time. And her mother wasn’t going to be at her wedding. So she was dreadfully upset and I had no idea about this.

I went to my GP. I got an appointment the next day. Went to him. And he examined me and he said, “Yes, you’ve got a lump.” He said, “It’s probably cancer, and it’s probably malignant.”

We went off to see a specialist in [place name]. And he said, “Well,” he said, “Yes, it’s probably malignant and it’s going to have to be a mastectomy and chemotherapy and radiotherapy because it’s so big.”
I was absolutely horrified. Absolutely shocked. I couldn’t get my head around the idea of having a mastectomy. You can call it vanity, I don’t know. But I just couldn’t get my head round it. So I said, “Well I want another opinion.” And he put us in touch with another surgeon in [another city]. And I went to see a surgeon and a plastic surgeon together and they examined and they said, “Yes, it’s got to be a mastectomy, chemotherapy, radiotherapy.”

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.

 

Not knowing whether she had cancer was a difficult and lonely time. Tests showed that the lump...

Not knowing whether she had cancer was a difficult and lonely time. Tests showed that the lump...

Age at interview: 38
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 33
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It was a funny holiday because it was sort of amazing and it felt very precious, but I was completely, it puts you in a completely different place where you’ve never really been before. Where you’re just worrying about death and dying, and illness and you’re having to kind of, it’s a very lonely place. Because you’re having to sort of talk to yourself about all the possible outcomes. And I think the really difficult thing of that period is just, is the uncertainty. Because actually when we came back to England and we went to the hospital, and when I found out, I actually felt better because it was, then I knew. I knew what was happening and I knew what we had to do. And then I had a kind of plan.

But the two weeks of uncertainty, even though we were having this wonderful sort of time together, and it felt that it was almost the most precious time we’ve ever had as a family, it was I think lonely. It was just very, it just felt very, I just felt really in a very alone place. I felt like I was completely sort of separate from everyone else with these sort of dark thoughts. And, you know, my husband was very good and very kind of caring. But I think you can’t kind of go there with anyone else really.

And so the actual finding out, I think I already knew in a way. So we went to see the doctor. And my Mum came with me because actually my husband had gone to start work in this job.

She called us in, and she was actually the same surgeon that had diagnosed my Mum. So she, I think her first words were, “I’ve got a terrible sense of déjà vu.” And, you know, I just started crying because it’s just, even though you know, you don’t know until someone says those words. And then it sort of, as I said, I think you feel better, you felt better. You feel kind of raw but better.

But then it was a sort of ripple effect from then on and, and the next few days were just so much to deal with, so much. And everyone wanted to phone you and when you’re not feeling ready to talk to people and it’s just, it’s just a lot. It’s a lot and, you know, obviously my husband wasn’t there. I had the two older children, and my period was a bit late, which I thought was just because I was sort of stressed and we’d been on holiday. But we had to do a pregnancy test because we had, that would really imply, that would really affect the treatment. And then I found out I was pregnant. So that was the same day as, you know, having the needle biopsy and the diagnosis.

And so it was just very, it was just a lot. I think I’ve never, you’ve never had to deal with so much information and implications in my life until then. And I was only 33. And I think that, I know, I mean obviously people get cancer a lot younger and I was old enough in some ways. I think it did, I had expected it to happen later I think. And my children were just babies, I think that’s what I was saying when the surgeon first told me, was that my children were just babies.

 

Verite had been feeling under the weather. She didn’t have any other symptoms but ‘felt’ she had...

Verite had been feeling under the weather. She didn’t have any other symptoms but ‘felt’ she had...

Age at interview: 61
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 54
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I’d been feeling a bit under the weather and I woke up one morning and I suddenly thought, “I know what’s wrong with me, I’ve got cancer.” And I then had the dilemma did I go to my NHS doctor, but I knew that I would have to wait two weeks at least to see him. Or did I pay and go and see my private doctor, who’s secretary would say to me, “Oh you poor thing, come in straight away.”

So I went to the private doctor and he said to me, “I cannot find anything.” He gave me a very thorough examination but he said, “I always trust my women patients, they know what’s wrong with their bodies. So, for my sake, will you go and have a mammogram?” Which I thought was a lovely way of putting it. And didn’t worry me at all.

And I knew I had cancer. So I go off and have the mammogram, and then go back and have the biopsy and that sort of thing. And finally I turn up for the results. And I knew immediately I’d got cancer because instead of, “Wait over there,” it was “Oh Miss Collins[name], Nurse [name] will look after you.” So I knew immediately I’d got cancer. Went in to see the doctor who gave me the news. I think he was very surprised because I didn’t burst into tears because he was sitting there with a box of tissues. And then I said to him, “When will I have my operation?”

You felt tired but did you have any symptoms, for example did you feel it was breast cancer or…?

No I didn’t. I did sort of examine my breasts but I couldn’t feel a thing. And I looked all over my skin to see whether I’d got skin cancer. But just something in my brain said, “You’ve got cancer.” And when the mammogram came back it was a tiny, tiny little bit of cancer. You know, the radiographer said it would’ve been very, very difficult and they might even have, if I hadn’t have been so insistent that I had cancer, they might have even overlooked this. But it would have grown.

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

 

Ingrid delayed going for breast screening and found it difficult to re-arrange her appointment....

Ingrid delayed going for breast screening and found it difficult to re-arrange her appointment....

Age at interview: 61
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 58
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It happened out the blue literally. I mean the year before I had had my invitation to go for the regular x-ray in [the screening unit]. But work commitments had meant that I couldn’t get there. And it was actually, to re-arrange that appointment was ridiculously complex. So although I contacted them and said I couldn’t do it, it was very, very difficult to re-arrange that appointment. And I never got around to doing it because it had to come from me. And so I hadn’t done it.

Anyway, I just got on with my life and it was then, as I was saying earlier, when we came back from holiday and I was having a shower in the morning to go to a doctor’s appointment that day, just before going into London. And I was just taking my hand over the breast to wash and I felt something. And I thought, “Hang on, that’s not normal.” And then started to feel for it. And I’m amazed that, considering that we’d been on a holiday where we had been, I had been showering two to three times a day, drying myself after swimming on a regular basis, that I hadn’t noticed it any earlier. And considering the size, as it turned out, it is astonishing that I found it that morning.

Before I went into London, I rang my GP. And they reacted very quickly. So basically I had my London appointment in the morning and saw my GP that afternoon, which I was very impressed by and very pleased with. And I could tell from the expression on his face that this was very, very serious. And he asked if I had, well he knew I had private insurance and I just said, “I want the best and quickest treatment I can possibly have.” And he thought for two seconds and decided to go to the consultant that he put me in touch with. And I saw that consultant the Saturday, that was Monday or Tuesday? It was Monday. So that was the Monday, so I saw my GP on the Monday, saw the consultant on the Saturday morning and had the surgery on the Monday. It was as quick as that.

 

Describes the tests she had to diagnose her cancer.

Describes the tests she had to diagnose her cancer.

Age at interview: 45
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 44
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First I found a lump in my left breast.

And for two weeks I ummed and ahhed and was very undecided as to whether this was a lump or whether it was something I was imagining. But I'd got a week off work coming up so I decided to go to the doctor's. And the doctor referred me to the hospital. And within a fortnight I was at the hospital having a biopsy and a scan.

Yes, I had a needle biopsy which involved the consultant putting a needle into the lump and taking a sample from the tissue. And I had a mammogram which is a little bit uncomfortable but not really painful. And I had an ultrasound scan. So I had those three tests done on the same day within about an hour or so.

And it was a needle biopsy? It was a needle biopsy.And then you had an ultrasound scan as well? Yes, yes.Can you say a little bit about that?

That's just a case of they pop the, a little bit of jelly onto your boob and run the camera over where the lump is, and try to get a picture of what's inside there.
 

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.

 

Explains that the lump she found was different to any others she had had and turned out to be...

Explains that the lump she found was different to any others she had had and turned out to be...

Age at interview: 50
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 48
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Well I suppose it was when I discovered the lump.

But previously I had discovered something - I'd felt like a thickening in the breast, about four months, maybe, beforehand, which I wasn't sure about. And I thought' "Well, I'll check this again next month."

And it was sort of a shock because it was so much bigger than it had been when I found, you know, what I thought I'd found a few months earlier - three months to four months earlier.

And, I've had small lumps in my breasts before, I've had fibro adenomas, and they were completely different. I knew this one was a, probably a cancer.

And I think you find it a shock but you're not sure you believe it.

They did all the tests - the mammogram, and the ultrasound, and the fine needle aspiration, and an ordinary other biopsy, a Tru-cut biopsy.

The biopsy came back that it was a cancer.
 
 

Explains that the breast with a lump had always been larger than the other breast.

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Explains that the breast with a lump had always been larger than the other breast.

Age at interview: 34
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 34
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I went to the doctors and saw a locum who was there because my doctor was busy.

She looked at my breasts and felt them and said' "Has your left breast always been bigger? "Do you know they're lopsided?"

And everyone says to me when I'm in these situations' "Do you know your breasts are lopsided?" It's something that is just accepted really.

And to be honest I hadn't questioned the size of them because looking back now I can see that the left breast had been getting bigger but I hadn't really noticed it as such. I just thought it was something to do with taking the pill or the time of the month or something like that.

 

Describes discovering a lump in her breast while she was pregnant.

Describes discovering a lump in her breast while she was pregnant.

Age at interview: 34
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 30
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About five months into the pregnancy I discovered a very small lump on my left breast.

I wasn't overly concerned about it at all as there had been a history of breast lumps in my family.

My mother had a double mastectomy in her early 30s due to several breast lumps that she'd developed which had been quite painful.

And both my older sisters, one of whom is four years older than me and the other seven years older than me, had both had breast lumps as well.

The lump that I discovered was very, very tiny at the time and I wasn't overly concerned at all. I went to the doctors that evening, the doctors fitted me in very quickly and examined the lump but again weren't overly concerned.

At seven-and-a-half months I went back as the lump had got bigger and was referred to my local hospital at the breast care clinic.

I had a needle biopsy taken from the breast and was called back to get the results when I was absolutely shocked to find that it was breast cancer.

All the way through we'd been very confident that I had nothing to worry about.
 

One young woman was only 18 when she developed breast cancer. It is extremely rare to develop breast cancer at such a young age. 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.

 

Explains that malignant lumps are rare in young women and that she was referred to hospital when...

Explains that malignant lumps are rare in young women and that she was referred to hospital when...

Age at interview: 19
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 18
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I don't know, I think I'd just got out the bath or something and I did used to, you know, check my breasts and things like that, but not as regularly as I should. Not as religiously as I should. They say do it every couple of weeks so you get familiar with them.

And I found this lump and I thought' "Well what do I do about it? It's nothing. I'm only young, it can't be anything." So I went to my GP and she said basically' "It shouldn't be anything at all considering your age." I was 19 at the time. No, I was 18 at the time. Nineteen in August.

So, 18 years old, you don't expect anything like that, and I don't think anybody does. She said' "Well come back to me in 2 weeks. It could just be your hormones playing up because you're so young. You're probably just having a bit of problems."

So I went back in two weeks and it had not gone anyway so she - I think that sort of clicked something in her mind that something needed to be done. So she referred me to the breast clinic at the local hospital.

So, I got an appointment for them and I went to see the doctor there. Again, he said' "You're so young it's likely to be absolutely nothing, a little cyst that needs draining."

He said' "There's no real reason why we can give you a mammogram because they don't show up in younger people."

And I thought' "Well that's not fair, they're not doing everything they can!" So he said' "We'll do a needle test and then we'll send you for an ultrasound as well."
 

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.

 

Explains that her breast cancer was discovered through a routine mammogram and confirmed by...

Explains that her breast cancer was discovered through a routine mammogram and confirmed by...

Age at interview: 56
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 55
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It was about, it was 18 months ago.

In fact it was a terrible introduction really to the new millennium because in December 1999 I'd gone and had a routine mammogram, and they said to me then that I wouldn't get the result until after Christmas.

Then there was a female doctor who was very nice and she said that they would do an aspiration.

What they do is they give you this aspiration without an anaesthetic in the hope of getting sufficient cells to be able to give you a diagnosis there and then.

She put the mammogram up on the board, on the light board, and was talking about the sort of black splodge there, then one of us said' "Well is it malignant?" and she said' "Yes."

And I said' "Oh no," or something [laughs].

And there was a nurse there as well.
 

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.

 

Explains how breast pain and an itchy nipple led to her diagnosis of breast cancer.

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Explains how breast pain and an itchy nipple led to her diagnosis of breast cancer.

Age at interview: 47
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 46
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Okay, last August, one Sunday evening, I was reaching over on my desk to get a pen and felt a dreadful pain inside my right breast. Prior to that I had had some itching, my nipple was itching very, very intensely and I didn't think about it. Itchy nipple to me didn't mean anything suspicious. But when I felt the pain and the lump I immediately was struck with fear and foreboding and didn't know what to do.

At the hospital I was given a barrage of tests, needle aspirations which didn't show anything conclusive.Then the next morning the needle aspiration was done again and there was a suspicious reading. I was then scheduled for a biopsy which was done about an hour later, so I got the feeling that there was a bit of panic going on around me.

By this time I should say that my breast was really red, sore and swollen and very, very painful. They did the biopsy, the biopsy was extremely painful. A mammogram, which was very painful, it's painful enough on a good breast but when your breast is invaded with inflammatory disease it was really, really painful.

Waiting for the results of this biopsy was like walking a tightrope to nowhere, it was awful. It was worse than actually facing the doctors with the bad news.

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.

 

Explains that an inverted nipple alerted her to her illness.

Explains that an inverted nipple alerted her to her illness.

Age at interview: 52
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 48
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I think the first time I became suspicious was I noticed that I had a lump in my breast, but I'd always had very lumpy breasts at my period times.

And the first month I just totally ignored it. I thought' "Oh, I'm just imagining things."

And I think it was half-way through the next month and I thought' "Mm, that's still there." I thought' "Well maybe I'm just about to start my period again." So I ignored it again.

And then one morning I was in the shower and I noticed that my nipple had inverted quite a bit, and I had always been told that breast cancer you would feel it as a tiny little pea-sized lump and mine definitely wasn't a tiny little pea sized lump.

But I had also been told that if the nipple changed shape in any way you should always go and get it investigated.
 

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.

 

Gillian was diagnosed with DCIS at a follow-up appointment in which she was given a mammogram.

Gillian was diagnosed with DCIS at a follow-up appointment in which she was given a mammogram.

Age at interview: 55
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 51
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Went every six months for my check up and, in May 2007, I went back down again to see, it was with like the surgeon, because it goes one time it was the oncology team, next time the surgical team. So I saw one of the surgeons and they’d asked me could they sort of use me if you like to take some photographs to show other women that, you know, having a lumpectomy really doesn’t have to make a great deal of difference. Which it didn’t, the work they did on that was amazing. I think I had a tiny little line and virtually no indent.

So I said, “Oh yes.” And then he said, “Oh, have you had…? When was your last mammogram?” And I said, “Oh, over a year ago.” And he said, “Well while you’re here,” because it’s quite a long journey, he said, “I’ll give you a slip of paper. Go and get it done.”

So we went along, sat around a little while, and then I went in. They did the mammogram on each breast, and then she left me sitting there. And I didn’t think too much of it, but then she came back in and said, “I’d like to take another shot.” So she took another shot and again I was left sitting a little while, and then she brought a doctor in. And I thought, “This doesn’t look very good.” So she said, “Get dressed.” I went out to [husband’s name] because by this time he again, bless him, he’s getting like paranoid. And they said then, they called us in and said they thought I had something called DCIS. Which was not a tumour but was like, almost like pre-cancerous.

I was dumbfounded. It was the last thing I expected. I just, I really had felt quite positive after the first time that it was, it’d been seen to, it was finished. I’d had clear margins. And although I wouldn’t say I didn’t think I couldn’t get cancer again, I really didn’t expect to get it in the same place which is where it was.

So again I think it was in about two or three days, I went for a biopsy. And then we were called back and I was told, yes, it, it was definitely DCIS, and because I’d had cancer only two years previously they recommended a mastectomy and chemo. So I think I trusted them because they’d been quite straightforward the first time and said, “You know you don’t need chemo.” And this was like the same doctor saying, “No, really this time I think you should have it.” So I did.

I had a mastectomy and reconstruction done at the same time.

 

Describes the symptoms that lead to the discovery that the cancer had spread to her bones.

Describes the symptoms that lead to the discovery that the cancer had spread to her bones.

Age at interview: 56
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 53
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And out of the blue I started to have aches and pains all over the place, really peculiar, across my shoulders, down my arms, legs, it was odd and it sort of settled down in the end after about a month, and I had pains in the tops of my legs.

So I had a bone scan, a chest x-ray and a liver ultrasound all on one day.

And the other tests, the results were there ready when we went back to the oncology department for this appointment a month later, and they told me that I had cancer in the bones, it was in the lower spine, the pelvis and the tops of both of my legs. 

I think that was quite a shock, I don't know what I thought it was, I suppose I didn't think it was anything, I didn't really know at all what I was expecting.

But the more you think about something like that, cancer in the bones, they have since dropped into the conversation that it's incurable, and that's fairly obvious really because they're not going to be able to cut a lump out of your bones in the way that they're going to be able to cut a lump out of your breast.

However I am on some medication which they say will contain and control it, and I do actually feel that that's working.
 

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.

 

Gillian never thought she’d get cancer in the same place again. This time she had DCIS.

Gillian never thought she’d get cancer in the same place again. This time she had DCIS.

Age at interview: 55
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 51
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The first time I truly thought they’ve fixed it, I’m fine, I’ll move on. Always you know realising that yes, in some, I could get secondary cancer somewhere else, but you know, that was not something I was going to worry about. I would be literally done with it.

When I got it back the second time, because it was in the same place, I think that’s what threw me. I’d never dreamt for a minute I would get it back in the same place. So that’s what threw me and then the fact that it was a different cancer, and it’s like, I didn’t even realise you could, you know, that was something I hadn’t sort of cottoned onto the fact that it could come back in exactly the same place but be a different type of cancer.

And that made me think is there something, you know is it going to pop up somewhere else? That has never actually gone away, although it’s not something that I worry about. It’s just now and again I think, “Oh,” you know. And especially when you read stories of people that have been sort of free of cancer for such a long time and then wallop it comes back.

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

We also have a section on breast cancer in men.
 
 
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Last reviewed August 2018.
Last updated August 2018.
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