About Breast Cancer

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in Australian women. Over 15,000 women are diagnosed each year.

If it is found early it is one of the most survivable cancers. Most women survive breast cancer. Latest reports show the 5-year survival is more than 87%.

In Australia the average age for first diagnosis is 60. About 75% of new cases are over age 50

The main risk factors are:

  • increasing age
  • a family history of breast cancer
  • hormonal factors
  • child-bearing history
  • personal and lifestyle choices

Signs & Diagnosis

The symptoms of breast cancer depend on where the tumour is, its size and how quickly it is growing.


Changes that may indicate breast cancer:

  • a new lump or lumpiness, especially if it’s only in one breast
  • a change in the size or shape of the breast
  • a change to the nipple, such as crusting, ulcer, redness or inversion
  • a nipple discharge that occurs without squeezing
  • a change in the skin of the breast – such as redness or dimpling
  • an unusual pain that doesn’t go away

90% of breast changes are not caused by cancer but if you find something unusual see your doctor without delay.


Breast cancer is diagnosed with the triple test of:

  • a clinical breast examination
  • imaging tests eg. mammogram or ultrasound
  • getting a sample of tissue (biopsy) from the breast, for examination by microscope.

Other tests may also be done to check for any spread outside the breast.


Cancer staging is a process that looks to determine the extent to which a cancer has spread. Usually a number from 1 to 4 is given (sometime as I to IV). This helps decide on the best course of treatment.

Stages of Breast Cancer

  • Stage 0
    An early stage breast cancer, has cancer cells in the lining of the lobules or ducts and has not spread into the fatty tissue or beyond the breast.
  • Stage I
    The early stage of breast cancer, this cancer has spread from the ducts or lobules into the nearby tissue. The tumour measures 2 cm or smaller and has not spread beyond the breast.
  • Stage II
    An early stage, the cancer has spread from the ducts or lobules into the nearby tissue, the tumour measures larger than 2cm but is not larger than 5 cm. It may or may not have spread to the lymph nodes on the same side as the breast cancer.
  • Stage III
    Considered an advanced stage, also known as locally advanced cancer.
  • Stage IIIa
    A tumour measuring more than 5 cm in diameter and may or may not have spread to the lymph nodes.
  • Stage IIIb
    A tumour of any size, which has spread to the skin, chest wall or internal mammary lymph nodes.
  • Stage IV
    Advanced stage, also known as metastatic. This cancer, regardless of size has spread (metastasized) to distant sites such bones, liver, or lungs, or to lymph nodes not near the breast.


When deciding what treatment is best for you, your doctor will consider:

  • The stage and grade of your cancer (how big it is and how far it has spread)
  • Your general health and medical history

The main treatments for breast cancer are:

  • Surgery
  • Radiotherapy
  • Chemotherapy
  • Hormone therapy
  • Biological therapy (targeted therapy)

You may have one of these or a combination. The type of treatment or the combination of treatments will depend on how the cancer was diagnosed and the stage it is at.

Breast cancer that has been diagnosed at screening may be at an early stage, but breast cancer diagnosed when you have symptoms may be at a later stage and require a different treatment.

Your doctor or specialist will discuss the most suitable treatments.



What can I do to reduce the risks of breast cancer?

While the precise causes of breast cancer are unknown, it is believed to result from a combination of inherited and environmental factors. We do not know how to completely eliminate the risk for breast cancer, but there are steps you can take that may reduce your risk for breast cancer:

  • Maintain a healthy body weight
  • Be physically active
  • Eat a healthy diet
  • Limit your alcohol consumption to one drink a day
  • Do not smoke, and avoid inhaling tobacco smoke
  • Regularly check your breasts for any changes
  • Talk to your GP about a regular screening mammogram

What is a mammogram?

A mammogram is a simple X-ray test of the breasts. It is used to find breast problems, such as lumps or fluid-filled cysts.

How is a mammogram done?

The radiographer puts each breast between two plates for 10-15 seconds, and then takes an X-ray. This may cause temporary discomfort, but is not harmful to the breasts.

When should I get checked?

From the age of 50 a mammogram should be done at least every 2 years. If you have a family history of breast cancer, or there are changes in your breasts, see your GP to have one earlier.

What is Breast-Screen Australia?

BreastScreen Australia is the national breast cancer screening program that provides free screening mammograms. For eligibility, please enquire. http://cancerscreening.gov.au/internet/screening/publishing.nsf/Content/breast-screening-1

What is breast conserving surgery?

Breast conserving surgery, also known as lumpectomy is the removal of a breast cancer and a small area of healthy tissue around it. When used with radiation therapy it can be highly effective for most women with an early breast cancer diagnosis.

What is a mastectomy?

A mastectomy is the complete surgical removal of a breast affected by cancer. Lymph nodes may also be removed from the armpit, to determine whether or not the cancer cells have migrated to other parts of the body.

What is radiotherapy?

Radiotherapy uses x-rays to destroy or alter cancer cells to prevent them from multiplying. It may be used to cure or reduce the cancer, or to bring relief of symptoms. Radiotherapy is administered by a radiation oncologist, who supervises the treatment using radiation therapy machines. The therapy can be given externally (beam) or internally (bracytherapy).

What is chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy is the use of chemical anti-cancer drugs to slow or stop the growth of cancer cells throughout the body. Chemotherapy may be used before or after surgery or radiation therapy. It can be administered by injection into a vein or body cavity, or given orally as a pill. It can also be used to shrink the cancer and reduce symptoms in order to improve the quality of life.

What are complementary therapies?

Complementary therapies are often used along with medical treatments such as surgery, radiotherapy or chemotherapy. While they will not cure or prevent cancer, some have been shown to be effective in reducing pain and improving quality of life.

In order to avoid harmful side-effects or adverse reactions, talk to your doctor first.

Useful Links

Join Our Mailing List