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Breast cancer

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What is breast cancer?

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women in Australia and the second most common cancer to cause death in women, after lung cancer.1

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 men and women can develop breast cancer, although it is uncommon in men.

In Australia, the overall five year survival rate for breast cancer in females is 90%. If the cancer is limited to the breast, 96% of patients will be alive five years after diagnosis; this figure excludes those who die from other diseases. If the cancer has spread to the regional lymph nodes, five year relative survival drops to 80%.

In 2014, 16,614 women and 140 men were diagnosed with breast cancer in Australia. The risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer by age 85 is 1 in 8 for women and 1 in 721 for men.

In 2015, 2939 women and 28 men died of breast cancer in Australia.

Breast cancer symptoms

Some people have no symptoms and the cancer is found during a screening mammogram or a physical examination by a doctor.

If you do have symptoms, they could include:

  • new lumps or thickening in the breast or under the arm
  • nipple sores
  • nipple discharge or turning in
  • skin of the breast dimpling
  • rash or red swollen breasts.

Pain is rare.

Causes of breast cancer

Some factors that increase your risk of breast cancer include:

  • increasing age
  • family history
  • inheritance of mutations in the genes BRCA2, BRCA1 and CHEK2
  • exposure to female hormones (natural and administered)
  • a previous breast cancer diagnosis
  • a past history of certain on-cancerous breast conditions

There is also an association with some benign breast disease and past exposure to radiation.

Screening for breast cancer

Women aged between 50 and 74 are invited to access free screening mammograms every two years via the BreastScreen Australia Program.

Women aged 40-49 and 75 and over are also eligible to receive free mammograms, however do not receive an invitation to attend.

It is recommended that women with a strong family history of breast or ovarian cancer, aged between 40 and 49 or over 75 discuss options with their GP, or contact BreastScreen Australia on 13 20 50.

Diagnosis for breast cancer

Tests to diagnose breast cancer may include:


A mammogram is an X-ray that can find changes that are too small to be felt during physical examination.


A doctor removes some of the breast tissue for examination under a microscope.

Other scans

If cancer is detected in your breast, you may have other scans to see if the cancer has spread to other parts of your body, such as a CT scan or MRI scan.

Treatment for breast cancer

Treatment depends on the extent of the cancer.


Staging involves assessing the size of the breast cancer and whether it has spread to the draining lymph nodes under the arm. A CT scan of the chest and liver and bone scan are done to check the sites to which breast cancers most commonly spread.


For localised breast cancer, the most extensive surgical option is to remove the breast and lymph nodes under the arm. When part of the breast is removed it is referred to as breast conserving surgery or a lumpectomy. Radiotherarpy is generally recommended after breast conserving surgery.

When the whole breast is removed it is called a mastectomy.

Adjuvant treatment

For tumours at greater risk of recurrence i.e. bigger, more aggressive cancers, or cancers that have spread to the lymph nodes, additional treatment (adjuvant therapy) can be given after surgery.

This can include hormone therapy of aromatase inhibitors or tamoxifen for women whose tumours have hormone receptors on their surfaces, and chemotherapy and targeted therapies such as trastuzumab for those 25 per cent of tumours that are HER2-positive (i.e. have the target for trastuzumab on their surfaces).

Patients presenting with locally extensive cancer will have chemotherapy and radiotherapy initially to see if it will shrink the cancer to make it operable.

Treatment for recurrent disease

If breast cancer returns after initial treatment, local disease may be treated with surgery, while more widespread disease will be treated with combinations of similar drugs to those used in adjuvant treatment. Common chemotherapy drugs include anthracyclines and taxanes.

Patients with bone disease can receive bisphosphonates such as zoledronate to slow the erosion of bones, and receive local radiotherapy for pain.

Palliative care

In some cases of breast cancer, your medical team may talk to you about palliative care. Palliative care aims to improve your quality of life by alleviating symptoms of cancer.

As well as slowing the spread of breast cancer, palliative treatment can relieve pain and help manage other symptoms. Treatment may include radiotherapy, chemotherapy or other drug therapies.

Treatment team

Depending on your treatment, your treatment team may consist of a number of different health professionals, such as:

  • a GP who can explain information provided by any specialists you may see as well as providing general healthcare
  • radiologist
  • a radiation oncologist
  • a radiation therapist
  • a medical oncologist
  • a breast care nurse
  • a surgeon
  • a reconstructive (plastic) surgeon
  • lymphoedema therapist
  • other allied health professionals, such as counsellor and physiotherapists.

Prognosis for breast cancer

It is not possible for a doctor to predict the exact course of a disease, as it will depend on each person’s individual circumstances. However, your doctor may give you a prognosis, the likely outcome of the disease, based on the type of breast cancer you have, the test results, the rate of tumour growth, as well as your age, fitness and medical history.

The most common types of breast cancer have a very good long-term prognosis, especially if the cancer is found early.

In Australia, the overall five year survival rate for breast cancer in females is 90%.

In 2013, 2862 women and 30 men died of breast cancer in Australia.

Preventing breast cancer

There is no proven method of preventing breast cancer, however the risk of breast cancer can be reduced by lowering alcohol consumption and maintaining a healthy weight.

Women who are at high risk because of a very strong family history may benefit from hormones such as tamoxifen, usually administered over five years. Bilateral prophylactic mastectomy can be considered in women at high risk of breast cancer due to gene mutations.


Understanding Breast Cancer, Cancer Council Australia © 2016. Last medical review of this booklet: July 2016.

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. ACIM (Australian Cancer Incidence and Mortality) Books. Canberra: AIHW.

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) 2017. Cancer in Australia 2017. Cancer series no. 101. Cat. no. CAN 100. Canberra: AIHW

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare & Cancer Australia 2012. Breast cancer in Australia: an overview. Cancer series no. 71. Cat. no. CAN 67. Canberra: AIHW.

1) Excluding non-melanoma skin cancer, which is the most commonly diagnosed cancer according to general practice and hospitals data, however there is no reporting of cases to cancer registries.




Additional Info

The Breast Care Nurse is a registered nurse who has undertaken specialist training in breast cancer nursing and is part of the multidisciplinary health care team.

Who can access the services of the Breast Care Nurse?

Any person diagnosed with breast cancer, as well as their family or colleagues who need information and support .

Access to information after a breast cancer diagnosis

There are many different types of breast cancer and therefore different treatment options. After a diagnosis of breast cancer, finding accurate information can be difficult and confusing.

Preparing for, and undergoing treatment, may be a challenging experience. The Breast Care Nurse can provide you with information and practical advice before, during and after treatment

If you are required to travel for treatment, the Breast Care Nurse can provide you with information about the treatment centre you will be attending.

Write down questions as they come to mind and take the list along to the next appointment with your doctor or health professional.

Early detection

The Cancer Council recommends all women over 50 have a mammogram

Women aged between 50 and 69 years are eligible for a free mammogram every two years

Breast cancer is the most common cancer among Australian women, after non melanoma skin cancer

Early detection gives a better chance for successful treatment and survival

How the Breast Care Nurse can help

Provide a range of information about breast cancer Answer questions about breast cancer, surgery, treatment and related issues Attend doctors appointments with you

  • Provide continuity of care
  • Liaise with other members of the multidisciplinary health care team
  • Practical support
  • Referral to other services
  • Information about prostheses and when to be fitted
  • Qualified fitting of prostheses
  • Information about reconstruction
  • Look Good...Feel Better workshop referrals
  • Information about breast cancer peer support group meetings
  • Wig hire, turbans and advice about hair loss
  • Advocacy

 Peer support

Volunteers, trained by the Cancer Council NT, are available to give one on one peer support. The Breast Care Nurse can arrange peer support from someone who has experienced the breast cancer journey

Other useful sites include:

For Information call The Cancer Council Cancer Helpline 13 11 20


For more information



  • Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2014. ACIM (Australian Cancer Incidence and Mortality) Books. Canberra: AIHW.
  • Australian Institute of Health and Welfare & Australasian Association of Cancer Registries 2012. Cancer in Australia: an overview, 2012. Cancer series no. 74. Cat. no. CAN 70. Canberra: AIHW.
  • Australian Institute of Health and Welfare & Cancer Australia 2012. Breast cancer in Australia: an overview. Cancer series no. 71. Cat. no. CAN 67. Canberra: AIHW.

This page was last updated on: Wednesday, May 7, 2014