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HomeYour HealthConditionsCancerBreast CancerHow Is Breast Cancer Diagnosed And Treated?How Is Breast Cancer Diagnosed And Treated?

Published on Dec 22, 2023

Authored by Pfizer Medical Team

 

Breast Cancer: A Quick Guide to Signs & Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatment


You may have already read about the risk factors for breast cancer.

But what are the possible signs to watch out for, how can breast cancer be detected at the earliest stage and how is it treated? Read on to find out more.
 

What Are The Signs And Symptoms of Breast Cancer?

​​​Some women diagnosed with breast cancer do not have any signs or symptoms of the disease. However, there are sometimes changes in the breast that a woman may notice1. Any change should be brought to the attention of your GP. Changes to look out for include:1

  • A new lump or lumpiness, especially if it's only in one breast
  • A change in the size or shape of one or both breasts
  • Changes to the skin of the breasts, such as dimpling (looking like an orange peel), rash, or redness
  • Pain in the breast or nipple
  • Discomfort or swelling in either armpit
  • A retracted (turned in) nipple or discharge from the nipple (other than breast milk)
How Is Breast Cancer Diagnosed?

​​​​​​Your GP will usually order one or more diagnostic tests if:

  • You notice a lump in your breast during a self-examination
  • They find a lump or other breast changes during a physical examination
  • A screening mammogram shows a finding that requires more evaluation
When should a woman have a Screening Mammogram?

Finding breast cancer at an early stage means that a doctor can begin treatment earlier in the course of the disease. Screening mammograms are an important diagnostic tool for early detection and have been shown to help reduce the number of deaths from breast cancer among women 40 to 74 years old2.

Breast Screen Australia and Breast Screen Aotearoa are national screening programs that offer free mammograms every 2 years for women aged between 50-74 years in Australia2 and between 45-69 years in New Zealand.3

Additionally, if your mother or sister has had breast cancer then it is important to talk to your doctor about the screening mammogram schedule that’s best for you.

If breast cancer is suspected, your GP will refer you to a cancer specialist, called an oncologist, who will perform one or more tests to make a diagnosis and/or to see if the cancer has spread to other parts of the body. The specific test that you will need depends on a number of factors, including:4

  • The type of cancer that is suspected
  • Signs and symptoms that you have
  • Your age and medical history
  • Results from any earlier medical tests
What Diagnostic Tests are used?

 

Imaging tests can be used which enable the oncologist to see the structure of a person’s breast, including:5

  • A mammogram is a low dose X-ray of the breast. It may be done even if you have already had a routine screening through BreastScreen
  • Ultrasound uses sound waves and can help determine if a breast lump is solid or filled with fluid. It may be done alone or together with a mammogram to provide more information
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans use a magnetic field and radio waves to produce detailed pictures of soft tissue that may not show up in an X-ray

Imaging tests are useful for suggesting if cancer is present, but only a biopsy can provide a definite diagnosis. During a biopsy, small pieces of breast tissue are taken so that it can be examined under a microscope by a pathologist for the presence of cancer cells.4

If cancer is detected in your breast, you may have additional scans to see if the cancer has spread to other parts of the body such as:5

  • A CT scan (Computerised Tomography) provides a more-detailed x-ray of the body, usually in order to see if cancer has spread to the organs such as the lungs or liver6
  • Bone scans, also called bone scintigraphy, can be used to help identify cancer in the bone, which appear as one or multiple ‘hot spots’6
  • A PET scan (Positron Emission Tomography) uses a radioactive substance (called a tracer) to look for the potential spread of breast cancer. This tracer can help identify areas of cancer that an MRI or CT scan may not show.7
How Is Breast Cancer Treated?

Your oncologist will take a number of factors into account when deciding on a treatment plan. These include:8

  • If the cancer has spread and if so, how far if the cancer cells have certain hormone receptors
  • The amount of a protein called HER2 on the cancer cells
  • Your overall health and personal preferences for treatment
  • Whether you have gone through menopause

The most common treatments for breast cancer include:8

  • Surgery: Surgeons remove a portion of the breast containing the cancer or the entire breast
  • Chemotherapy: Medicines that are given to shrink or destroy cancer cells
  • Radiation therapy: High-energy rays are used to kill cancer cells
  • Hormonal therapy: Medicines which are given to prevent cancer cells from getting the hormones they need to grow
  • Targeted therapy: Medicines that attack specific targets inside or on the cancer cells
  • Immunotherapy: Medicines that work with the body’s own immune system to help it fight cancer cells
Most women with breast cancer may typically receive more than one type of treatment.8


Talk to your GP or oncologist if you have any questions about breast cancer, screening, treatment, or steps you can take to reduce your risk. If you think you have any of the signs or symptoms of breast cancer, make an appointment to see your GP right away.

References
  1. Cancer Council. Types of Cancer. www.cancer.org.au/cancer-information/types-of-cancer/breast-cancer Accessed Nov 2023.
  2. BreastScreen Australia Program. www.health.gov.au/our-work/breastscreen-australia-program/about-the-breastscreen-australia-program Accessed Nov, 2023.
  3. Time to Screen New Zealand - National Screening Unit. https://www.timetoscreen.nz/breast-screening/ Accessed Nov 2023.
  4. Cancer.net. Breast Cancer Diagnosis. https://www.cancer.net/cancer-types/breast-cancer/diagnosis Accessed Nov 2023.
  5. Breast Cancer Network Australia. Tests to Diagnose Early Breast Cancer. https://www.bcna.org.au/resource-hub/articles/tests-to-diagnose-early-breast-cancer/. Accessed Nov 2023.
  6. Breast Cancer Now. Secondary breast cancer tests. https://breastcancernow.org/about-breast-cancer/secondary-breast-cancer/secondary-breast-cancer-tests/ Accessed Nov 2023.
  7. Medline Plus. PET scan for breast cancer. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/007469.htm Accessed Dec 2023.
  8. Cancer.net. Breast Cancer: Types of Treatment. https://www.cancer.net/cancer-types/breast-cancer/types-treatment Accessed Nov 2023.

External Resources

- BreastScreen Australia
- Breast Cancer Foundation NZ
- Cancer Council
- Calculate your risk of breast cancer with the iPrevent tool from Peter Mac
- Health Direct: Breast Cancer
- McGrath Foundation: Find a nearest McGrath breast care nurse (Australia)

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