Why is breast cancer so common?
The cells in our breasts change during each menstrual cycle, which means there are more opportunities for mutation than in other more dormant parts of the body. “Before ovulation your breasts grow more cells as your body prepares for pregnancy. If you don’t become pregnant these cells die off,” explains Kathy Wells, Breast Cancer Network Australia’s head of policy, research and advocacy. “The cells in the breasts are very active so they’re more prone for things to go wrong with them.”
What are the risk factors?
Your risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer increases after 50, with 53 per cent of breast cancer cases occurring in women aged 50 to 69 and 25 per cent in women aged over 70. “Ageing is one of the main risk factors for breast cancer, as is being a woman,” Wells explains. “Some men do get breast cancer but the vast majority of cases occur in women.”
Having a strong family history of breast cancer is another risk factor, with the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations leading to a significantly higher risk of being diagnosed with breast or ovarian cancer.
Anyone with a family history of breast cancer can get free genetic testing through a family cancer clinic at a public hospital. “Only about five to 10 per cent of women develop breast cancer as a result of a strong family history,” Wells points out. “Most breast cancer is really just random.”
The things you can do to reduce your likelihood of cancer
Given the random nature of breast cancer, the best thing women can do is to be familiar with their breasts and take note of any changes, plus have mammograms every two years once they reach 50. “Early detection of breast cancer leads to the best outcomes,” Wells explains. “If you can find cancer early while it is still small, you’re likely to have the best chances in terms of overall treatment and prognosis.”
Having a healthy diet and getting plenty of exercise is also important. “We recommend women try to maintain their ideal BMI (body mass index) as that will certainly help to reduce your risk,” Wells says.
Hearing you have breast cancer can be a devastating blow, but Wells says Breast Cancer Network Australia has plenty of tools and online forums to help women cope. “A lot of women struggle with their diagnosis and the uncertainty it brings,” she says. “BCNA has an online network on our website where you can talk to other women who’ve also been diagnosed. You can ask them questions and compare notes.”