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Each year, about 55,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer in the UK. It is more common in women who are aged 50 and over.
Breast cancer can be invasive or non-invasive (in-situ). When people talk about breast cancer, they usually mean invasive breast cancer. This is when cancer cells have spread outside the milk ducts or lobules where they started into surrounding breast tissue.
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Breast cancer in men is rare. We have more information for men with breast cancer.
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Types of breast cancer
There are different types of breast cancer. Knowing the type you have helps your doctors decide on the best treatment for you.
Most breast cancers are invasive and there are different types. They start in the ducts or lobes of the breast and spread into surrounding breast tissue. Breast cancer that has not spread outside the lobes or ducts is called ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS). It is the earliest possible form of breast cancer. It needs to be treated but is not life-threatening.
Invasive breast cancers can be grouped depending on how the cells look when they are examined under the microscope. The most common type of invasive breast cancer is ductal invasive. Invasive lobular breast cancer is a much less common type. Some other rarer types are:
A breast lump is the most common symptom of breast cancer. Most breast lumps are not cancer but it is always important to get checked by your doctor.
If you have any symptoms or do a self-exam and notice anything that is unusual for you see your GP straightaway.
Doctors do not know the exact causes of breast cancer. But there are risk factors that can increase your chance of developing it.
Having one or more risk factors does not mean you will get breast cancer. Also, having no risk factors does not mean you will not develop it.
Breast cancer is likely to be caused by a combination of different risk factors, rather than just one.
Women who have symptoms usually begin by seeing their GP. They will examine you and refer you to a breast clinic. You should get an appointment within 2 weeks.
Some women are referred through the NHS breast screening programme. Breast screening is a way of finding breast cancer at an early stage, when it is too small to be felt or seen.
At the breast clinic
You will see a specialist breast doctor or a nurse practitioner. You may also see a breast care nurse. They usually ask you if:
- you have had any other breast problems
- you have a family history of breast cancer.
The doctor or nurse will examine your breasts and the lymph nodes in your armpits and around your neck.
After your examination, your doctor or nurse will tell you what tests you need:
You may have many of these tests on the same day as well as getting the results. But you might have to wait up to 2 weeks for some results. We have more information on waiting for test results.
Further tests after diagnosis
If the biopsy results show there are breast cancer cells, you will need further tests.
You may have the following tests to check your general health:
You may have tests to find out more about the size of the cancer, or if it has spread anywhere else in the body (its stage):
MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan
The results of your tests help your doctors find out more about the size and position of the cancer and whether it has spread. This is called staging.
A doctor decides the grade of the cancer by how the cancer cells look under the microscope. This gives an idea of how quickly the cancer might grow or spread.
Knowing the stage and grade helps your doctors plan the best treatment for you.
This information is about stage 1 to 3 breast cancer. If you have stage 4 breast cancer, you may find our information about secondary breast cancer helpful.
Breast cancer cells may have receptors (proteins) that hormones or a protein called HER2 can attach to and encourage the cells to grow. Cancer cells taken during biopsy are tested for these receptors.
There are different types of receptors in breast cancer:
Breast cancer that has receptors for the hormone oestrogen is called oestrogen receptor-positive (ER-positive) breast cancer.
Receptors for HER2
Some breast cancers have too much of a protein (receptor) called HER2 (human epidermal growth factor receptor 2) on the surface of their cells. This is called HER2-positive breast cancer.
Cancer that does not have receptors for either hormones or HER2 is called triple negative breast cancer.
A team of specialists will meet to discuss the best possible treatment for you. This is called a multidisciplinary team (MDT).
Your doctor will explain the different treatment options and their side effects. They will also talk to you about the things you should consider when making treatment decisions.
The first treatment for breast cancer is often surgery to remove it. Your surgeon will talk to you about having one of these operations:
You will usually need some, or all, of the lymph nodes in your armpit removed.
Some women may be asked to decide if they want surgery to make a new breast shape (breast reconstruction) during the operation. Others may decide to have this done later.
We have more information about your operation. You may also need support when dealing with changes to your body after surgery.
Treatment before surgery
Some women may have treatment, such as chemotherapy or hormonal therapy, before surgery. This is called neo-adjuvant treatment.
It may be given to shrink a larger cancer. Doctors may give you neo-adjuvant treatment so you can have breast-conserving surgery instead of a mastectomy. Or you have chemotherapy before surgery with certain types of breast cancer or when the cancer is growing more quickly. This is given to reduce the risk of the cancer coming back.
Treatment after surgery
Your cancer doctor will usually offer you one or more of the following treatments after surgery to reduce the risk of breast cancer coming back:
We have more information in our treatment overview.
You may have routine appointments with your doctor or breast care nurse, or they may give you information on what to look out for.
Your treated breast will look and feel different. If you notice anything unusual between appointments, contact your cancer specialist or breast care nurse straight away.
You may get anxious between appointments. This is natural. It may help to get support from family, friends or a support organisation.
Macmillan is also here to support you. If you would like to talk, you can:
Lymphoedema is a swelling of the arm or hand. It sometimes happens after surgery or radiotherapy to the lymph nodes in the armpit. It usually develops slowly, months or years after treatment.
There are things you can do to help reduce your chances of developing lymphoedema. If you notice any swelling in your arm, hand or chest, always ask your doctor or nurse to check it.
Sex life and fertility
Breast cancer treatments can have a direct effect on your sex life. In younger women some treatments may also affect being able to get pregnant (fertility).
For example, surgery may affect how you think and feel about your body (body image) which can affect your sex life. It can take time to adjust to changes to your body. If you have a partner, it can help to talk openly with them about your feelings. If any difficulties do not improve, ask your breast care nurse or doctor for advice.
If you have not been through menopause your doctor or nurse will advise you not to use contraception containing hormones. Women thinking of getting pregnant in the future will usually be advised to wait for 2 years.
If doctors think your treatment may affect your fertility, it may be possible to remove eggs from your ovaries before treatment starts. This may mean you can have fertility treatment in the future.
Some treatments can cause permanent or temporary menopause, which can cause different symptoms. It can increase your risk of bone thinning (osteoporosis).
Doctors do not usually recommend hormone replacement therapy (HRT) after breast cancer. But there are different ways of managing menopausal symptoms and looking after your bone health.
Well-being and recovery
Even if you already have a healthy lifestyle, you may choose to make some positive lifestyle changes after treatment.
Making small changes to the way you live such as eating well and keeping active can improve your health and well-being and help your body recover.
Below is a sample of the sources used in our breast cancer information. If you would like more information about the sources we use, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
European Society for Medical Oncology. Primary breast cancer: ESMO clinical practice guidelines for diagnosis, treatment and follow-up. Annals of oncology 26 (supplement 5): v8–v30. 2015.
Morrow M, et al. Chapter 79: malignant tumors of the breast. DeVita, Hellman and Rosenberg’s cancer: principals and practice of oncology (10th edition). Lippincott Williams and Wilkins. 2014.
National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). Early and locally advanced breast cancer: diagnosis and management. July 2018.
Scottish Intercollegiate Guidelines Network. SIGN 134. Treatment of primary breast cancer: a national clinical guideline. September 2013.
This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert medical and health professionals and people living with cancer. It has been approved by Senior Medical Editor, Dr Rebecca Roylance, Consultant Medical Oncologist.
Our cancer information has been awarded the PIF TICK. Created by the Patient Information Forum, this quality mark shows we meet PIF’s 10 criteria for trustworthy health information.