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Breast cancer


Cells in our bodies normally grow and multiply in an orderly way. In cancer, this orderly process goes wrong and cells begin to grow and multiply uncontrollably.

Breast cancer can have a number of symptoms but often shows as a lump or thickening in the breast tissue, although most breast lumps are not cancerous. If you notice any of these symptoms, see your doctor as soon as possible.

Breast cancer is often treated using differing combinations of surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Sometimes breast cancer may also be treated using biological or hormone treatments.

There is a good chance of recovery if breast cancer is detected in its early stages, so it is important women check their breasts regularly for any changes. After a period can be a good time to do this.

BreastScreen Australia is the national breast cancer screening program. It provides free screening to all women over 40, and specifically targets women aged 50-69 years. To make an appointment phone 13 20 50.

Breast Cancer Network Australia (BCNA) can provide more information on breast cancer through their website, or by calling their information line on 1800 500 258.

Personal story: breast cancer

Being diagnosed with breast cancer can be both emotionally and practically challenging. Listening to others who have experienced similar situations is often re-assuring and can be helpful for you, your loved ones or when preparing questions for your doctor or a specialist.

Watch this video about Tess's experience after being diagnosed with breast cancer.


Read the related video transcript >

More information about this video >

Sources: Breast Cancer Network Australia (Breast Cancer), Department of Health and Ageing (BreastScreen Australia Program), (Breast cancer, women 30-49, interview 53), NHS Choices, UK (Breast cancer - female)

Video Copyright: ©2013 University of Oxford. Used under licence from DIPEx. All rights reserved.

Just diagnosed

If you have suspected breast cancer, either due to your symptoms or because your mammogram has shown an abnormality, you will be referred for further tests such as a biopsy. A biopsy involves taking a sample of tissue cells from your breast and testing them to see if they are cancerous. If a diagnosis of breast cancer is confirmed, more tests will be needed to determine the stage and grade of the cancer and to work out the best method of treatment.

A diagnosis of breast cancer may change how you think about your body, so it is important to give yourself time to come to terms with it.

Source: NHS Choices, UK (Diagnosing breast cancer, Living with breast cancer)

Living with

Most women with breast cancer have an operation as part of their treatment. It is important to take things slowly and give yourself time to recover. During this time, avoid lifting things (for example, children or heavy shopping bags) and heavy housework. You may also be advised not to drive.

Some other treatments, particularly radiotherapy and chemotherapy, can make you very tired. You may need to take a break from some of your normal activities for a while. Do not be afraid to ask for practical help from family and friends.

Some younger women have to cope with early menopause brought on by treatment for cancer. Symptoms can include hot flushes, vaginal dryness and loss of sexual desire. Talk to your doctor about any symptoms you have and they will be able to help.

Other outcomes might include a breast prosthesis, which is an artificial breast worn inside your bra to replace the breast that has been removed, and a breast reconstruction (if you did not have immediate breast reconstruction carried out at the time of the surgery).

Breast cancer treatments can also cause new problems such as pain and stiffness in your arms and shoulder after the surgery, and a build-up of excess lymph fluid which causes swelling (called lymphoedema).

Talk to your doctor if you experience these, or any other long-term effects of treatment.

Source: NHS Choices, UK (Living with breast cancer)

Facts & figures

  • Breast cancer is one of the most common cancers in Australian women with over 12,000 new cases diagnosed in 2006, and projections suggest that the number of new cases will continue to grow.
  • A total of 2,618 women died from breast cancer in 2006, making it the second most common cause of cancer-related deaths for women.
  • Breast cancer represented over one-quarter (28%) of all reported cancer cases in women in 2006. More than two-thirds (69%) of these cases were in women aged 40 to 69 years. In the same year, 102 cases of invasive breast cancer were diagnosed in men, accounting for 0.8% of breast cancer cases.
  • Outcomes for women diagnosed with breast cancer have improved significantly. Overall, five-year relative survival was 88% for women diagnosed with breast cancer in 2000 to 2006 compared with 73% for women diagnosed in 1982 to 1987.
  • Age is the biggest risk factor in developing the disease. Over 75% of breast cancers occur in women 50 years and over.
  • Nine out of ten women who get breast cancer don’t have a family history of this disease.
  • The lifetime risk of women developing breast cancer before age 75 years is 1 in 11.

Sources: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (Breast cancer in Australia: an overview, 2009), Department of Health and Ageing (BreastScreen Australia Program)

Last reviewed: 
February, 2013