Breast cancer is the most common cancer affecting women (breast cancer can and does affect men but only 1 in 100 cases are male), with some 2 million cases worldwide today. Risk factors include family history & genetics (including the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes), increasing age, obesity, lack of exercise, alcohol, young-onset menstruation, hormone replacement (HRT), and having children late or not at all.

Breast cancer may present as a breast lump, breast tenderness/discomfort, nipple changes (puckering, retracting, etc.), nipple discharge, and breast-skin changes. It is quite common for early breast cancer to cause no symptoms – breast cancer is quite often identified through self-examination or medical screening (clinical examination and or mammography).

Breast cancer is treated with a combination of surgery, chemotherapy, hormone therapy, and radiation. Surgical options range from breast-saving surgery to full mastectomy, with breast reconstruction an option immediately or later. Prognosis varies considerably depending on tumour-type, degree of spread, patient-age, etc. Average 5-year survival rates are around 80% with good modern treatments.

Screening for breast cancer is widely advocated and correctly so, given the improved outlook associated with early diagnosis. Screening involves self-examination, doctor-examination, mammograms, and ultrasounds. That said, there is some emerging controversy around mammograms and whether they may produce too many false-positive results in low-risk women. False positives may lead to unnecessary biopsies and significant patient anxiety, not to mention costs. This is a matter to discuss with your own doctor, with most experts recommending regular mammograms for women over 40-50 years of age, as well as those with any risk factors.

In recent years preventive double-mastectomy has become an option for some women, especially those at high risk (e.g. carriers of the BRCA genes or those with a strong family history of breast cancer). Famously, Angelina Jolie had this procedure done some years ago.

Breast cancer is a common and nasty condition. Healthy living can reduce risk. There are some clear-cut risk factors and every woman should understand her own risk profile. Regular screening is generally worthwhile since early diagnosis improves outcomes.