Women's Health Series: Breast Cancer

Following from International Women's Day on Wednesday, we're kicking off our Women's Health Series. Dr. Nick will be giving us the lowdown on the health issues affecting women: their causes, treatments and what to do if you're worried about them. First up, we have what you need to know about Breast Cancer...

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women. Around one in nine women develop breast cancer, which is the reason breast cancer awareness is all around us. Most breast cancer occurs over the age of 50, but a quarter occurs in younger women. It can also develop in men, but this is far less common.

Breast cancer has a good prognosis if picked up early enough, with only 5% being advanced cancers at the time of diagnosis.

Risk Factors for Breast Cancer

There are few risk factors that can increase your risk of cancer, although it can develop for no reason at all.

  • Being over 50 years of age
  • If you carry a certain inheritance gene known as BRCA1 or BRCA2
  • If you have a member of your family diagnosed, in particular if they were less than 50 years old when they were diagnosed, even if you don’t carry the above mentioned gene
  • Never had a child
  • Had a child over the age of 30
  • Never breast-fed your child
  • Previous breast cancer
  • Starting periods at an early age
  • Menopause over the age of 55
  • Geographical location. Where you live can increase your risk
  • Excessive alcohol intake
  • Continuous use of HRT over the age of 50 increases risk slightly
  • Regular exercise may reduce your risk of breast cancer by nearly a third, particularly if you are post-menopausal and overweight.

What to look For

Doctor, I found a lump! This doesn’t mean you have breast cancer. In fact most breast lumps are not cancerous but fluid-filled cysts or glandular tissue known as a fibroadenoma. Many women’s breasts become more lumpy and tender just before a period during pregnancy and as they get older. Frequent examination is the key, in order to look for any new changes or lumps. If you do notice any, arrange to see your doctor as a matter of priority.

Lumps are the most common presentation of breast cancer, but there are other changes you need to look out for and have your doctor discuss with you. These include:

  • Inverted nipple
  • Nipple discharge
  • Dimpling or thickening of the skin of the breast
  • Breast pain
  • A dry red rash around the nipple
  • A lump in the armpit

What Happens if Your Doctor is Concerned?

Initially, you will be sent to a breast unit for urgent assessment. There, a specialist doctor will examine you. What happens next depends on the finding and though I won’t go through the exact process, I will mention some of the tests you may have. These include:

  • This is a specialised breast X-ray
  • Ultrasound or MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scan of the breast
  • FNA (Fine Needle Aspiration), where a small needle is used to collect cells
  • Biopsy – a small procedure to remove some tissue for testing. This is a very good way of whether the lump is cancerous or not

If the lump is cancerous, the treatment options are many and varied, depending on the type of breast cancer identified, the extent of the cancer, your age, health etc.

Breast Screening

As we mentioned above, because the risk of breast cancer increases significantly over the age of 50, there is a national screening programme. This is an invitation for women between the ages of 50 and 70, to have a mammogram every three years.


This blog is written by friend of Neat, Dr Nick Ambatzis MB BS, MSc (SEM), MRCGP.

Nick is a General Practitioner specialising in Sports and Exercise Medicine. He completed his medical degree at University College London Medical School in 2002. Nick worked for almost ten years as a junior surgeon and spent three years in Trauma & Orthopaedics. He attained a Masters in Sports and Exercise Medicine and subsequently trained as a GP practising in Paddington.

From an early age, Nick has been both a keen cross-country runner and water-polo player, having competed at college level. Nick is also an accomplished ultra-marathon runner, having competed in many cross-country and cross-alpine races, ranging from 50-100 miles. He has also been a Crossfit and Crossfit Endurance coach.  

Leave a comment

All comments are moderated before being published