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In Austria, more than 5,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer every year. The disease most commonly affects women over the age of 50. Breast cancer does not cause symptoms for a long time. Changes, such as a lump in the breast, are harmless in many cases and usually have causes other than cancer. However, women should have any unusual changes in their breasts checked out by a doctor. If breast cancer is detected and treated in time, the chances of a cure are good.

What is breast cancer?

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women. Breast cancer also occurs very rarely in men. Experts also refer to breast cancer as mammary carcinoma . It is a malignant tumor that originates from the tissue of the breast. The cancer often develops in the glandular tissue of the breast. This is the tissue where breast milk is made in a breastfeeding woman.

Which forms are distinguished?

The glandular tissue consists of the milk ducts and the glandular lobules. Most commonly, cells in the milk ducts change into cancer. Experts then speak of the so-called ductal carcinoma. In some forms of breast cancer, the woman’s sex hormones cause the cancer to grow. Experts then speak of a “hormone receptor-positive breast cancer”.

Initially, the tumor only grows in the breast. At this early stage, breast cancer can usually be treated well. Over time, the cancer can spread to nearby tissues and organs. For example, in the lymph nodes around the breast. Sometimes the breast cancer cells travel to other organs, such as the lungs, liver or bones, via the blood vessels or lymphatic vessels. A new malignant tumor then grows there, a so-called metastasis. If the cancer has spread in this way in the body, experts speak of “metastatic breast cancer”. This happens in about one in four women who have breast cancer.

Changes in the mammary gland tissue

Sometimes the disease is preceded by certain changes in the mammary gland tissue. The doctor can discover this during a mammography. These changes are most commonly found in the milk ducts of the breast. Then experts speak of the so-called ” ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS)”. DCIS can, but does not have to, result in cancer. Since no one can predict if and when this will happen, experts advise affected women to seek treatment to be on the safe side.

What causes breast cancer?

In most of those affected, no clear cause can be found for the breast cancer. Factors that can increase the risk of breast cancer include:

  • Older age: Older age is one of the greatest risk factors. Most women are older than 50 at the time of diagnosis.
  • Family burden : If a mother or sister in the family already has breast cancer, the personal risk of breast cancer increases. This can indicate a genetic burden, but it does not have to be: only five to ten out of 100 breast cancer patients actually have changes in their genetic material, so-called gene mutations. Genetic changes are heritable. For more information see Breast Cancer Screening.
  • Influence of female sex hormones : Female sex hormones can stimulate the growth of cancer cells in the breast. The longer female sex hormones have an effect on a woman’s body, the higher the risk of breast cancer:
    – Early first menstrual period, late menopause , no pregnancy, prolonged use of birth control pills and hormone preparations after menopause can increase the risk of breast cancer.
    – Conversely, the more children a woman has and the longer she has breastfed, the lower her risk of breast cancer. That’s one of those reasons why professionals recommend breastfeeding. In addition, women going through the menopause should only take hormone preparations if the doctor deems it absolutely necessary.
  • Dense breast tissue: Women with very dense breast tissue have an increased risk of breast cancer. Mammography can be used to determine whether this is the case for a woman .
  • Alcohol: Scientific studies indicate that alcohol can increase the risk of breast cancer. For this reason, experts recommend avoiding alcohol as much as possible.
  • Severely overweight : Women who have gone through the menopause and have a BMI greater than 30 are at a greater risk of developing breast cancer. Clarifying the causes of obesity helps to counteract it. Women can also counteract obesity with a healthy lifestyle. This includes a varied and high-fiber diet and plenty of exercise.
  • Radiation of the upper body : Women who have been treated with radiation in the chest area because of a previous illness have a slightly increased risk of later developing breast cancer.

What symptoms can occur?

If a woman has breast cancer in an early stage, she usually does not notice it. The cancer is then usually only discovered as part of the early detection examination with mammography. Sometimes the affected woman also notices changes in the breast. Such changes can indicate breast cancer, but do not have to.

What are harmless breast changes?

Usually, however, there are harmless causes behind changes in the breast. So it is completely normal for the size and texture of the breasts to change again and again in a woman’s life. The reason for this is the natural ups and downs of the female sex hormones. The breast can change, especially in connection with the menstrual period: it can swell and tighten shortly before the menstrual period. After that it gets softer again. Sometimes a woman can also feel knots. In most cases, however, these disappear again on their own when menstruation occurs and have nothing to do with cancer. If the nodules persist for a longer period of time, benign changes can also be behind them: for example mastopathies , cysts or a benign tumor.

Nevertheless, any unusual, long-term change in the breast should be taken seriously and clarified by a doctor as soon as possible. The earlier breast cancer is detected, the better it can be treated.

What signs can indicate breast cancer?

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The following changes can be signs of breast cancer:

  • When one breast is suddenly larger than the other.
  • If there is a hard spot in the chest or armpit.
  • When skin changes appear: for example, red spots that do not go away; dents or bumps; eczema of the nipples.
  • When one breast deforms differently than the other when you raise your arms.
  • When the nipple is retracted.
  • When fluid leaks from a nipple.

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