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Breast Cancer Awareness Month 2023 - Part 1

October marks Breast Cancer Awareness Month, a significant event on the annual landscape of cancer treatment, care and research. Breast Cancer Awareness Month provides an opportunity to promote awareness of the signs and symptoms of breast cancer and the importance of early diagnosis, whilst helping to raise vital funds for research.

Throughout October, we will be publishing a series of blogs and stories about breast cancer. This first blog explores the breast cancer landscape, particularly the importance of screening and prevention. 

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Around 1 in 7 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime, with over 2800 cases annually in Wales. However, through improvements in screening, early diagnosis and treatments, breast cancer survival rates have improved dramatically over the last 50 years. Over 80% of women (and men) now survive beyond 10 years, compared to only 40% in the 1970s.

Sadly, around 600 women still lose their lives to breast cancer each year in Wales. This is a stark reminder that there is still a long way to go in our efforts to provide continued improvements in detection and better treatments, especially for the most difficult to treat forms, such as pre-menopausal and triple-negative breast cancers.

Breast Cancer Screening

Without doubt, early detection of breast cancer, largely through routine breast cancer screening, has contributed significantly to these better outcomes, due to cancers being caught at an earlier stage when they are easier to remove and treat, often before they have had an opportunity to spread.

In Wales, women between the ages of 50 and 70 will be sent an invite to attend a screening appointment once every 3 years by Breast Test Wales. If changes in the breast are detected, the person will be invited back to a screening centre for a further assessment. Women over the age of 70 can still take part in breast screening, but they but must contact Breast Test Wales themselves to make the appointment.

People who are transgender, non-binary or gender diverse may also need a breast screening test. Additional information is made available to support this community to ensure no one is left behind and that people receive the screening tests they need, but also avoid unnecessary tests for those where it is not considered a requirement.

Signs and Symptoms of Breast Cancer

The signs and symptoms of breast cancer can be quite varied. Some symptoms are more obvious, such as a lump in the breast, while others can be quite vague. Below are some of the signs and symptoms that could signal the presence of breast cancer:

  • A change in the size, shape or colour of one or both breasts.
  • A lump in the breast. Although most lumps in the breast are not malignant it is important to get them checked, especially if the lump is new.
  • Unexplained alterations to the appearance and shape of the nipple, which may include bleeding, a rash, inversion (sunken nipple), and unexpected discharge.
  • Dimpling on the skin of the breasts, similar to the appearance of an orange.
  • Easily detected lumps and swellings (lymph glands) in the armpits that are firm and rubbery to touch.

    The list above is by no means exhaustive, and if in any doubt people should contact their GP who will be ready to help and advise.

Plenty of Room for Prevention in the Breast Cancer Landscape

Around 5–10% of breast cancers are considered to be hereditary, however a much larger number (around 30%) are considered preventable. Over the last 20 years, research has shown that breast cancer is a much more preventable disease than first thought and simple alterations to some lifestyle choices can significantly reduce the risk of developing breast cancer over a lifetime.

Several risk factors have been identified as important for breast cancer. About 1 in 10 cases of breast cancer are understood to be attributed to alcohol. Limiting the consumption of alcohol and drinking in moderation will reduce the risk of breast cancer, although zero alcohol is considered best as there is no real is no safe limit for alcohol when it comes to cancer risk.

Maintaining a normal weight and eating a healthy diet will reduce the risk of breast cancer, as obesity has been shown to be responsible for around 2–3 cases of breast cancer per 100 women. Other factors considered protective are breastfeeding where possible and participating in 150 minutes of moderate physical exercise each week.

The use of certain forms of HRT (hormone replacement therapy) or the contraceptive pill is also known to slightly increase the risk of breast cancer. Many will consider the benefits of using these therapies to outweigh the risks. As every case is individual any concerns should be raised with the GP who will be happy to advise and discuss based on the needs and the medical history of the person.

In our next blog, we will discuss breast cancer screening and whether there are further improvements to be made to this already effective tool.

If you would like to find out more about Cancer Research Wales and the ways in which you can help support our research here in Wales, please visit our website here.