Knowing Breast cancer

Why is breast cancer important?

Breast cancer is the most common non-skin cancer malignancy among Australian women. It is estimated that one in eight women in Australia will have breast cancer by 80 years of age. Early detection provides the best chance of curing breast cancer. Understanding the risk of breast cancer, instituting appropriate method and frequency of screening based on individual risk, and promptly assessing any new breast symptoms are keys in the early detection of breast cancers.

Breast cancer risk and risk management

Being a woman and the age of the person are the most important risk factors for breast cancer. There are a number of other contributory factors that can add to this risk. None of them can be implicated as the sole cause of breast cancer in any individual patient. It is often a complex interaction of these risk factors that determine the composite risk of an individual. While some of the risk factors are non-modifiable, many, for example, lifestyle, factors can be modified to reduce the total risk. A detailed discussion of risk factors can be found here. Your risk may be estimated using one of the many online risk assessment tools available. Understanding your risk, taking appropriate steps to reduce this risk, and choosing appropriate strategy for breast screening can be the best positive steps one can take towards breast health.

Breast cancer awareness and breast self-examination

Many women think that they do not know or cannot do a breast self-examination. Please refer to the cancer councils’ advice on this topic. Any woman can familiarise the normal presentation of their breast by regularly observing their breast. This will help one to determine any change in their breast earlier than they will otherwise do.

Breast screening

Breast screening is the process of assessing the presence of breast cancer when one has no symptoms of the disease. In Australia, breast screening is performed using the special X-rays for the breast called mammograms. Breast screening programme targets all women aged between 50 and 74 years. Breast screening helps to detect cancers before they manifest with symptoms. As such, breast screening-detected cancers tend to be smaller and offer better chance of surviving the cancer. Screening-detected cancers are more often amenable to breast-conserving surgery. Women from the age of 40 and healthy women over 75 years can have breast screening if your family doctor thinks it is appropriate.

Breast symptoms and assessment (triple test)

Breast symptoms are a common cause of anxiety among women of all ages, with breast cancer as the potential cause underlying the stress associated with breast symptoms. Common breast symptoms include breast lump, breast pain, unusual discharge from the nipple, deformities, skin changes, and asymmetries of the breast and nipple. Any of these symptoms may in fact be associated with breast cancer or may be an indicator of cancerous or precancerous changes. Any new breast symptoms should be discussed with your general practitioner. Breast symptoms can be reliably assessed by following the principles of ‘triple assessment’. A specialist breast surgeon’s assessment may be necessary if your general practitioner thinks it is appropriate.

If breast cancer is the cause of your symptom, it can be accurately established in a majority (96% to 98%) of cases by following the principles of triple assessment. Triple assessment involves careful clinical examination, appropriate radiological assessment, and appropriate histopathological assessment. Your GP in association with your breast specialist can organise this assessment for you. It is often advised that you consult a specialist before you have a breast biopsy since breast biopsy can mislead a subsequent clinical assessment.

Breast cancer diagnosis

Breast cancer is commonly diagnosed through breast screening or when breast cancer causes symptoms like mass or breast changes or incidentally while investigating an unrelated symptom. Mammogram and ultrasound scan help specialists to assess the extent of the disease in the breast. MRI may be needed in some cases. All breast cancers will need biopsy to help in formulating treatment. Most of the breast cancers in Australia are diagnosed at early stage and are amenable to curative treatment. Some cases of breast cancer may need further scans to ascertain the extent of spread of disease.

Breast cancer management.

Breast cancer treatment is multidisciplinary and involves close interaction of a number of specialists including radiation and medical oncologists, plastic surgeon, physiotherapist, breast care nurses, and many other specialists. Surgery, radiotherapy, and systemic therapy are the components of breast cancer treatment.

Surgery

Surgical treatment is the mainstay of treatment for breast cancer. Surgery will involve surgery to excise the cancer from the breast and surgery of the axilla (armpit).

Surgery of the breast

Surgery to excise the cancer from the breast can be performed either as breast-conserving surgery or mastectomy. In breast-conserving surgery, the surgeon aims to excise the cancer with a rim of normal tissue (wide excision) preserving the rest of the breast. Since most breast cancers are diagnosed at early stages, this option is mostly available to newly diagnosed breast cancers. Using plastic surgical techniques to excise the tissue and reshape breast, oncoplastic surgeons can now excise even larger tumours with satisfactory cosmetic outcomes in suitable cases. In cases that are not suitable for breast-conserving surgery, mastectomy (removal of the entire breast) may become necessary. In established specialist breast cancer care, majority of mastectomy can be followed by appropriate reconstruction.

Surgery of the axilla

Surgery of the axilla is necessary because it is vital to know if the cancer has spread to the lymph node in the axilla or not. Most of the early-stage breast cancers will not spread to the lymph node, and hence, a biopsy of the lymph node (sentinel lymph node biopsy) performed at the time of breast surgery is all that is necessary. However, in cases where cancer has spread to the lymph node, excision of a defined set of lymph nodes from the axilla will become necessary in some cases (axillary dissection).

Radiotherapy

Radiotherapy is an integral part of breast cancer treatment, especially so if treated by breast-conserving surgery. Radiotherapy aims to destroy cancer cells in the radiated area. Radiotherapy may be performed in the breast or chest wall, in the armpit area, and/or in the neck depending on the extent and aggressiveness of the cancer. Radiotherapy is performed over 3 to 5 weeks. Radiotherapy is usually well tolerated; however, some adverse reactions are possible. Radiation oncology specialist will be in charge of radiation treatment and will guide patient through this treatment and treat any side effects that may occur.

Systemic therapy

Significant advances have been made in the options available for systemic treatment of breast cancers. While surgery and radiotherapy aim to treat cancer in the breast and lymph node area, systemic treatment aims to treat cancer cells in the whole body. By this form of treatment, we aim to reduce the risk of recurrence of cancer. Systemic treatment options include endocrine therapy, which is often given as tablets for 5 to 10 years, or chemotherapy, which is often given over 3 to 6 months. A specific form of systemic treatment is available for special types of tumours presenting with HER2 receptors. This treatment is usually given over a period of 1 year. Systemic therapy is administered under the care of a medical oncologist.

Neoadjuvant therapy

Majority of breast cancers are treated by surgery first followed by systemic therapy and radiotherapy. In selected cases, systemic therapy is given first before the surgery. This is called neoadjuvant therapy. This is a decision that is taken by the treating team and will need close interaction between the surgeon radiation oncologist and medical oncologist. Neoadjuvant therapy offers a number of advantages, most important of which is the increased chance of breast-conserving surgery.

Breast cancer surveillance.

Following the completion of initial breast cancer treatment, a period of close observation is instituted. This is called breast cancer surveillance. During this period, regular clinical examinations and yearly mammogram and ultrasound scan of the breast will be performed. Any new symptoms or concerns will be appropriately addressed.