25 Oct 2012
October is breast cancer awareness month, when charities and government health bodies join forces to increase the public’s awareness of the risk and effects of breast cancer.
Breast cancer is the most common cancer in the UK, with about 48,000 women diagnosed every year. Most women who get breast cancer (8 out of 10) are over 50, but younger women can also get it.
The number of new cases of female breast cancer (men can get it too, in rare cases) has increased by almost 70% since the mid-1970s, and although the increase has slowed down in the last decade it still continues to rise.
There is no clear-cut answer to why incidence rates are going up, as breast cancer is a complicated disease with a variety of different causes.
However, one of the contributing factors is that from 2004 women aged 65-69 – a group where breast cancer has risen especially quickly – were included in the national breast screening programme. The programme invites women aged 50 to 70 for breast screening with mammography every three years, and the inclusion of the oldest five-year bracket would likely have lead to a significant increase in the number of diagnoses.
Alcohol and obesity are two lifestyle factors that increase the risk of developing breast cancer. A study by Cancer Research UK and the NHS has shown that 11 per cent of breast cancers in the UK are caused by alcohol, and 7 per cent by obesity. While the nation’s expanding waistline could be contributing to the rise in breast cancer, separate studies indicate that average adult alcohol consumption is decreasing, so this factor is unlikely to account for the increase in cancer diagnoses.
The trend of having children later in life is likely to reflect an important part of the increase, as having children early (and having many of them) protects against breast cancer.
Breast cancer median survival time has increased significantly in the last few decades. More than three-quarters of women diagnosed with breast cancer today survive the disease for at least ten years or more, and almost two thirds survive their disease beyond 20 years.
Early detection is crucial, as the sooner the cancer is diagnosed, the more effective the treatment may be. More than 90% of women diagnosed with breast cancer at the earliest stage survive their disease for at least five years. This figure is around 15% for those women who are diagnosed with the most advanced stage disease.
Breast Cancer Care, a UK-wide charity dedicated to providing emotional and practical support for anyone affected by breast cancer, advices women to check their breasts regularly to ensure that any abnormalities are detected early.
The vast majority of breast cancers are found by women themselves, and therefore they encourage all women, regardless of age, to get used to looking at and feeling their breasts regularly.
Davinia Green, Breast Health Promotion Manager at Breast Cancer Care says: “If you feel a bit embarrassed or apprehensive about checking your breasts, it may be reassuring to know that you can make it part of your daily routine, it needn’t be anything to be scared of. If you get to know what’s normal for you, it’s much easier to notice if something isn’t right.”