Breast cancer

Breast cancer is when abnormal cells in the breast begin to grow and eventually form a growth (lump) which can spread within the breast. Breast cancer is more common in people over the age of 50 years, although a quarter of cases occur in younger people. The chances of getting breast cancer increase with age.
    • Increasing age.
    • Dense breast tissue (this is genetic).
    • Drinking alcohol.
    • Overweight or obesity.
    • Physical inactivity. 
    • You have had cancer before.
    • You have had abnormal breast cells with either ductal cell carcinoma in situ (DCIS ) or lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS)
    • One or more family members has had breast or ovarian cancer. This may be due to a rare gene in the family.

    Know your risk - Breast Cancer Foundation

    • Starting your periods (menstruation) younger than 12 years.
    • Higher levels of the naturally occurring hormone oestrogen.
    • Being older when your first child was born (30 years+).
    • Not breastfeeding.
    • Not having given birth to any tamariki (children).
    • Later age at menopause (55 years or older). 
    • Combined menopausal hormone therapy (MRT).
    • Combined oral contraceptive pill.
    • Radiation therapy.
    • Exposure to diethylstilbestrol (DES) - a drug that was prescribed to pregnant women up until the 1960s to reduce the risk of miscarriage while pregnant. 

Symptoms of breast cancer

There may be no warning signs that you have breast cancer. Some signs and symptoms may include: 

  • a new lump in the breast
  • nipple discharge
  • changes in the nipple, such as turning inwards, ulcers, persistent redness or flaking skin
  • changes in the breast such as shape or size or changes on the skin of the breast such as skin dimpling, redness
  • pain in the breast that does not go away. 

It is important that you take the time to learn the normal look and feel of your breasts. Knowing what is normal will help to find any breast changes. Get any changes checked by your healthcare provider as soon as possible. 

How to check your breasts - Breast Cancer Foundation (external link)

Diagnosing breast cancer

Early diagnosis of breast cancer while it is still small gives you the best chance of survival. Having regular mammograms (breast screening) can help find breast cancer early.

Breast screening — Time to Screen (external link)

If a mammogram picks up something unusual, you may need to have further tests. These will include a physical exam and:

  • an ultrasound scan or an MRI scan
  • a biopsy — taking a sample to look at under a microscope. 

Treating breast cancer

The treatment for breast cancer depends on the type and stage (where a cancer is located, its size, and if it has spread to parts of the body), your age, general health and preferences. 

Treatment options may include: 

  • surgery to remove the cancer and a small part of the breast (a lumpectomy)
  • surgery to remove the breast (a mastectomy)
  • radiation therapy to destroy cancer cells
  • medicine for women with hormone receptors on their breast cancer cells (hormone therapy)
  • a combination of surgery, radiation therapy and hormone treatment
  • drugs to stop the growth and spread of cancer (targeted therapy). 

The Cancer Society has more detailed information on breast cancer treatments.

Treatments for breast cancer - Cancer Society (external link)  

Reducing your risk of breast cancer

There are things you can do to reduce your risk of developing breast cancer.

  • Stop drinking alcohol or cut back on the amount you drink.
  • Keep within a healthy weight range.
  • Do regular physical activity. Regular physical activity also decreases the risk of cancer coming back in those who have already been treated for breast cancer.
  • Reduce your lifetime exposure to estrogen. If you use hormone contraception or menopause hormone therapy (MHT), use it for as short a time as possible. Although the increase in risk is small, the risk increases the longer you use them.
  • Get a good night's sleep as disrupted sleep can increase risk
  • Breastfeed for as long as possible aiming for at least one year.
  • Have regular breast screening from age 45. If you have an increased risk of breast cancer you may choose to start screening at an earlier age.

Free breast screening

BreastScreen Aotearoa offers free breast screening from age 45 to 69.

Breast screening — Time to Screen (external link)

Cancer support

Once someone has been diagnosed with cancer, we know there are some difficult days ahead. No matter where you are on the cancer pathway, there is always someone to connect with for support.

There are local services available to help make things easier for you and your whānau.

Cancer support (search) — Healthpoint (external link)

There are a number of benefits of belonging to a support group.

Health-based support groups

Breast Cancer Foundation NZ

Breast Cancer Foundation NZ is a non-for-profit charitable trust. Their vision is zero deaths from breast cancer; people may still develop breast cancer, but eventually, it will become a chronic, manageable illness like HIV or diabetes.

Cancer Society - breast cancer

The Cancer Society has been supporting New Zealanders with cancer for over 90 years.

Breast Cancer Aotearoa Coalition

The Breast Cancer Aotearoa Coalition (BCAC) provides a united voice and support for New Zealand women who have experience of breast cancer.

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