Vital to know breast ‘risks’

Health Watch, Normal

The National, Thursday October 17th, 2013

 BREASTS are designed to produce milk for babies. The tissue (or muscle) that makes up the breast extends from the collarbone, across to the armpits and down to the bottom of the bra line. Breast tissue is made up of milk sacs, milk ducts and fatty tissue. Milk sacs are tiny bags (or glands) where the milk is produced. Milk ducts are like tubes which carry milk from the milk sacs to the nipple. The fatty tissue protects the breast. Breasts have rope like fibrous tissues, blood vessels and a lymph system which helps the body fight infection.


What is breast cancer?

Breast cancer occurs when tiny body cells that make up the breast tissue become abnormal and grow in an uncontrolled way. The majority of breast cancers develop in the milk ducts, while a small number start in the milk sacs. If you are worried about your risk, see your doctor for advice on the most appropriate breast screening tests for you.

Although women make up the majority of breast cancer cases, men can get breast cancer too (but only about 1% of the population). Men should feel and look for any lump around the nipple area and do breast self-examination like women.


Who is at risk? 

While causes of breast cancer are not known, there are some things that increase the likelihood of developing the it. These are called ‘risks’.

  • Being a woman is the main risk for developing breast cancer as it is about 100 times more common in women.
  • the risk for developing breast cancer increases with age. Most breast cancers occur in women over the age of 40;
  • The risk increases for women who have a family history, particularly a mother, sister or daughter with breast cancer who was diagnosed before the age of 40. These hereditary breast cancers are responsible for less than 5% of all breast cancers diagnosed;
  • women who have had breast cancer have an increased risk of developing breast cancer again; and,
  • Nine out of 10 women who developed breast cancer have no other risks.


Breast changes

Breast changes come in all different shapes and sizes. Throughout life, breasts undergo many changes associated with monthly periods (menstruation), pregnancy and menopause. Increasing age and weight changes also affect the breasts.

Many women find that their breasts feel more tender and ‘lumpy’ before their period, and some women experience tenderness in the early stages of pregnancy. As women age, breasts become fattier, making them softer and less lumpy. Nine out of 10 women’s breast changes are not caused by breast cancer. 

However, it is important to see your doctor quickly if any of the following breast changes occur:

  • A lump, lumpiness or thickening that does not go away;
  • changes to the nipple such as crusting, ulceration, redness or drawing in the nipple;
  • discharge (liquid) from the nipple;
  • any change to the shape, feel, size and colour of the breast; and,
  • Dimpling or puckering (pulling inwards) of the skin;


Breast awareness

Become familiar with the usual look and feel of your breasts. Women should do breast self-examination at least once a month. There is no ‘right’ way of checking your breasts, but make sure you see your doctor quickly if you notice any unusual breast changes. Do not wait. Ask your doctor to examine your breasts as part of your health check-up.

While most breast changes are benign (not cancerous), it is important to have any change checked quickly by your doctor who will perform a medical examination of your breasts. Some breast changes can be caused during menstrual cycle or by harmless conditions including:

  • Cysts – when fluid is trapped in breast tissue; and,
  • Fibroadenomas – solid fibrous growths.



Breast cancer occurs less frequently in women under 40 years of age. Also the breast tissue of younger women may be dense, making mammograms difficult to assess. This means that very small changes cannot be readily detected by this screening. A mammogram is a special breast X-ray that is used to look for signs of breast cancer.

Mammograms are used for two reasons:

  • Screening – looking for a possible breast cancer when there are no symptoms; and,
  • Diagnosis – looking further at a change that has been detected in your breast.

Your doctor can refer you to an appropriate service for diagnostic mammograms. If you are over 40 years of age, remember to have a mammogram every two years.

Further investigation

If a change is found, investigations include :

  • Ultrasound – sound waves are used to reflect a picture of the breast tissue. Ultrasound can be used to confirm whether a breast change is a fluid filled cyst or a solid mass;
  • fine Needle Aspiration – a sample of cells and fluid is taken from the area of the breast being investigated and sent to a laboratory for testing; and,
  • Care Biopsy – A small piece of breast tissue is removed and sent to a laboratory for testing.


–(Courtesy of Port Moresby Cancer Relief Society Inc.)