Breast cancer is the Big One that worries us as females. It’s the commonest newly diagnosed cancer in the UK representing a third of all cancers diagnosed in females. It is also the most commonly diagnosed cancer worldwide.
18% of breast cancers occur in women under the age of 50 (labelled as pre menopausal) and 82% in women over the age of 50 (post menopausal). The incidence has increased by 24% over the last 23 years and the rate has doubled in the last 50 years.
Incidence is rare in men but it does occur and that rate has remained stable in the last 20 years.
In the UK in women born after 1960 the lifetime risk of developing breast cancer is estimated at 1 in 7. In men the lifetime risk is 1 in 870.
The good news is that 86% of these cancers are being diagnosed early before they have spread and when they can be more easily treated. The survival rates for breast cancer are nearly the best of all cancers with only prostate cancer having better outcomes. Over 80% of women diagnosed are expected to survive at least 10 years. Mortality rates have dropped since the mid 1980s with 48% of breast cancer deaths occurring in women over the age of 75, and these numbers are expected to continue to improve.
It is still the 2nd commonest cause of death in women of any age and the 1st commonest cause of death in women aged 35 to 49 years of age.
15 to 20% of those with breast cancer will have a family history of breast cancer with the BRCA 1 and BRCA2 genes accounting for 4 to 6% of breast cancers in women and 11 to 12% in men.
So what can we do to reduce our risks?
Know your risks
There are certain things that we cannot change. Being a female and aging being two of these factors. Both of these increase our risk of developing breast cancer. Having a family history puts us at higher risk particularly if we have a first degree female relative who is under the age of 50 when they developed breast cancer. If we have our children over the age of 30 or don’t have children we are at higher risk. If we started our periods early (before 12) and start menopause late (after 55) we are at higher risk.
Be breast aware
Picking up breast cancer early is important when it comes to treatment options. Get familiar with how your breast tissue feels and how it changes with your cycle. Get anything unusual checked out with your doctor. That might be skin changes, lumps, pain or nipple discharge. Anything that is occurring in one breast in particular is worth noticing.
Attend screening when invited
The current screening programme in the UK is for women every 3 years between the ages of 50 and 71. This is in the form of a mammogram. Screening can be very anxiety provoking for some of us, but it is important to remind yourself that it is one of the ways we can keep ourselves well. There is support available if this is causing you concern.
There are certain things we can do that will help reduce our risk of breast cancer. These are things that keep us healthy and protect us from other diseases too. Being active is one of the best things we can do to protect ourselves. We have a 14% lower risk of developing breast cancer if we are active. For every 2 hours a week a woman spends doing moderate to vigorous activity, the risk of breast cancer falls by 5%. It will also help us manage our weight which will also reduce our risk. Reducing alcohol intake also reduces our risk as every unit a week is associated with an increase in risk. No one diet has been found to be protective or harmful but eating a Mediterranean diet with whole foods, balance between all the food groups and rich in nutrients is good for us generally.