Breast cancer

Friday 1 July, 2016

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On this page: The breasts | What is breast cancer? | What are the different types? | How common is breast cancer? | What are the symptoms? | What are the risk factors?


The breasts

Women and men both have breast tissue.

In women, breasts are made up of milk glands. A milk gland consists of:

  • lobules – where milk is produced
  • ducts – tubes that carry milk to the nipples.

In men, the development of the lobules is suppressed at puberty by testosterone, the primary male sex hormone.

Both female and male breasts also contain supportive fibrous and fatty tissue. Some breast tissue extends into the armpit (axilla). This is known as the ‘axillary tail’ of the breast.

Breast cancer and the lymphatic system

The lymphatic system is a key part of the immune system. It protects the body against disease and infection. It is made up of a network of thin tubes called lymph vessels that are found throughout the body. Lymph vessels connect to groups of small, bean-shaped structures called lymph nodes or glands.

Lymph nodes are found throughout the body, including in the armpits, breastbone (sternum), neck, abdomen and groin.

The lymph nodes in the armpit are often the first place cancer cells spread to outside the breast. During surgery for breast cancer (or, sometimes, in a separate operation), some or all of the lymph nodes will be removed and examined for cancer cells. See information about surgery to remove lymph nodes.

The breasts

What is breast cancer?

Breast cancer is the abnormal growth of the cells lining the breast lobules or ducts. These cells grow uncontrollably and have the potential to spread to other parts of the body. Both women and men can develop breast cancer, although breast cancer is rare in men.

What are the different types?

There are several types of breast cancer.

Non-invasive breast cancer
Ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS)

Abnormal cells are contained within the ducts of the breast. Having DCIS can increase the risk of developing invasive breast cancer.

Invasive breast cancer
Early breast cancer

The cancer has spread from the breast ducts or lobules into surrounding breast tissue. It may also have spread to lymph nodes in the armpit. Most breast cancers are found when they are invasive. The most common types of early breast cancer are invasive ductal carcinoma (IDC) and invasive lobular carcinoma (ILC). IDC accounts for about 80% of breast cancers, and ILC makes up about 10% of breast cancer cases.

Other types

Other types of invasive breast cancer include locally advanced breast cancer, secondary breast cancer, inflammatory breast cancer and Paget’s disease of the nipple.

Lobular carcinoma in situ

Some women have abnormal cells that are contained within the lobules of the breast. This is called lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS). This is not cancer. LCIS is very rare in men.

While LCIS increases the risk of developing breast cancer, most women with this condition will not develop breast cancer.

LCIS is usually detected during tests for other breast disorders. If you are diagnosed with LCIS, you will be monitored with regular screening mammograms or other types of breast imaging.

How common is breast cancer?

Apart from non-melanoma skin cancer, breast cancer is the most common cancer diagnosed in Australian women – it represents 28% of all cancers diagnosed in women. About 15,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer each year, and one in eight will be diagnosed by the age of 85.

Although breast cancer can occur at any age, it is more common in women over 40. Almost 70% of breast cancers are diagnosed in women aged 40–69, and 25% are diagnosed in women aged 70 and over.

About 120 men are diagnosed with breast cancer in Australia each year, and most of these men are over 50. Breast cancer in men makes up less than 1% of all breast cancers – only 1 in 838 men will be diagnosed before the age of 85.

What are the symptoms?

Some people have no symptoms and the cancer is found during a screening mammogram (a low-dose x-ray of the breast) or a physical examination by a doctor.

If you do have symptoms, they could include:

  • a lump, lumpiness or thickening, especially if it is in only one breast
  • changes in the size or shape of the breast
  • changes to the nipple, such as a change in shape, crusting, sores or ulcers, redness, a clear or bloody discharge, or a nipple that turns in (inverted) when it used to stick out
  • changes in the skin of the breast, such as dimpling or indentation, a rash, a scaly appearance, unusual redness or other colour changes
  • swelling or discomfort in the armpit
  • persistent, unusual pain that is not related to your normal monthly menstrual cycle, remains after your period and occurs in one breast only.

Most breast changes aren’t caused by cancer. However, if you have symptoms, see your doctor without delay.

What are the risk factors?

In most people, the exact cause of breast cancer is unknown, but some factors can increase the risk. Most people diagnosed with breast cancer have no known risk factors, aside from getting older, which increases the risk in women and men.

Having risk factors does not necessarily mean that you will develop breast cancer.

In women, risk factors include:

  • having several first-degree relatives, such as a mother, father, sister or daughter, diagnosed with breast cancer and/or a particular type of ovarian cancer. However, most women diagnosed with breast cancer do not have a family history
  • having a family member who has had genetic testing and has been found to carry a mutation in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes
  • a previous diagnosis of breast cancer or ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS)
  • a past history of particular non-cancerous breast conditions, such as lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS) or atypical ductal hyperplasia (abnormal cells in the lining of the milk ducts)
  • long-term hormone replacement therapy (HRT) use.

In men, the risk is increased in those who have:

  • several first-degree relatives (male or female) who have had breast cancer
  • a relative diagnosed with breast cancer under the age of 40
  • several relatives with ovarian or colon cancer
  • a family member who has had genetic testing and has been found to carry a mutation in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes
  • a rare genetic syndrome called Klinefelter syndrome. Men with this syndrome have three sex chromosomes (XXY) instead of the usual two (XY).

Some lifestyle factors, such as being overweight, smoking, drinking alcohol and a lack of physical activity, also slightly increase the risk of breast cancer in both women and men.

Inherited breast cancer gene

Most people diagnosed with breast cancer do not have a family history of the disease. However, a small number of people have inherited a gene fault that increases their breast cancer risk.

Everyone inherits a set of genes from each parent, so they have two copies of each gene. Sometimes there is a fault in one copy of a gene. This fault is called a mutation.

The two most common gene mutations that are linked to breast cancer are on the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. Women in families with an inherited BRCA1 or BRCA2 change are at an increased risk of breast and ovarian cancers. Men in these families may be at an increased risk of breast and prostate cancers.

People with a strong family history of breast cancer can attend a family cancer clinic for tests to see if they have inherited a gene mutation. For more information about genetic testing, talk to your doctor or breast care nurse, or call Cancer Council 13 11 20.

For more information see Familial breast cancer.


Please note: This information is about early breast cancer. For information about secondary breast cancer (also called metastatic or advanced breast cancer), visit Breast Cancer Network Australia or Cancer Australia.

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Reviewed by: A/Prof Meagan Brennan, Breast Physician, Westmead Breast Cancer Institute, NSW; Carole Andary, Cancer Council Nurse, Cancer Council SA; Tracey Bretag, Consumer; Terri-lee Cooper, McGrath Breast Care Nurse, Cancer Screening and Control Services, Tasmanian Health Service, TAS; Dr Richard de Boer, Medical Oncologist, Royal Melbourne and Epworth Hospitals, VIC; Miss Jane O’Brien, Specialist Breast and Oncoplastic Surgeon, Epworth Breast Service, VIC; Susan Schwabe, Breast Cancer Care: Clinical Nurse Consultant, W.P. Holman Clinic, Launceston General Hospital, TAS; Dr Anita Taylor, Deputy Director, The Wesley Breast Clinic, QLD.

Updated: 01 Jul, 2016