Breast Cancer

What is breast cancer?

Breast cancer is the abnormal growth of cells in the breast. These cells grow and develop into a cancerous growth that can have the potential to spread to other parts of the body.

In 2018, more than 18,200 Australians were estimated to be diagnosed with breast cancer, with 99% of these cases estimated to be women.1

Fortunately, Australia has one of the best survival rates of breast cancer in the world, with five and ten year survival rates of 90% and 83% respectively.1

Is breast cancer hereditary?

In 5-10% of cases, breast cancer is hereditary. The cancer is caused by specific gene mutations (changes) in the BRCA1 (BReast CAncer gene one) and BRCA2 (BReast CAncer gene two) genes.1 There are several other genes other than BRCA1 and BRCA2  that also help make up this percentage.

The BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes are responsible for cell repair and growth, as well as healthy function of breast, ovarian and other body tissues.2 Sometimes, these genes develop mutations which can then be passed down through family generations, increasing the chance of breast (and ovarian) cancers.2

Stages of breast cancer

Breast cancer classification is complex, but it is typically classified into stages from 0 – IV based on:

  • the size of the tumour (T)
  • if the cancer has involved any lymph nodes (N)
  • whether the cancer has metastasized (spread) to other parts of the body (M).3

Stage 0 is the earliest stage of breast cancer, ranging up to Stage IV.
Stage IV is the most serious stage, meaning the cancer has spread to other parts of the body.4

Signs and symptoms of breast cancer

Breast tissue can typically feel lumpy, therefore it can be difficult to know what is normal and what could be a cancerous lump.

However, some common symptoms to look out for are; 5


in the size or shape of your breast

Any new lumps

in the breast or under your arm

Discharge of fluid

(except breast milk) from the nipple, including blood

Dimpling or a ‘pulling’

of skin on your breast

Breast pain or swelling

Dry, flaky red skin

around the nipple area

Knowing your breasts is one of the most important things you can do to help detect changes.6

You can do this by routine, monthly self-examinations.

Treatment for breast cancer

There are a number of treatment options depending on the type and stage of your breast cancer, and your own needs.

Some treatments include;


Surgery can either be breast-conserving surgery such as a lumpectomy (removal of the lump within the breast tissue) or a mastectomy (removal of the entire breast). To find out if the breast cancer has spread to axillary (underarm) lymph nodes, one or more of these lymph nodes will be removed and looked at under the microscope. This is an important part of figuring out the stage (extent) of the cancer. Lymph nodes may be removed either as part of the surgery to remove the breast cancer or as a separate operation.7

Hormone Therapy

Hormone Therapy is a form of therapy that can target any cancer cells within the body.Depending on the type of breast cancer, hormone therapy may not be suitable for all women.9

Deep Inspiration Breath Hold (DIBH)

Treatment at Icon

Icon centres offer a range of breast cancer treatments to ensure a personalised treatment plan for every patient. Treatment options include chemotherapy, radiation therapy, targeted therapies and access to clinical trials.

Visit our treatments page to find out more information about the range of treatment methods and technology available at Icon

Our research centre at Icon offers Australia the largest private clinical trials program in cancer research, with over 35 clinical trials currently open for recruitment.

Clinical trials specific to breast cancer research can be found here.

Icon’s collaborative approach to clinical trial research not only enables continual advancement and breakthroughs in breast cancer research, but also ensures the most up to date treatment options are available to all patients regardless of health insurance.

Our specialists utilise the latest technology and techniques to diagnose and treat breast cancer. Icon centres offer a range of breast cancer treatments to ensure a personalised treatment plan for every patient. Treatment options include chemotherapy, radiation therapy, immunotherapy, targeted therapies and access to clinical trials.

FAQs about breast cancer

What causes breast cancer?

There is no one cause of breast cancer, rather it is a combination of genetic, lifestyle and environmental factors that can increase your risk.

Risk factors include:

  • Being female
  • Having a family history of, or close relative who has had breast cancer
  • Aging – women who are aged 50 years have a 10 times increased risk of breast cancer compared to women who are 30 years.11
  • Drinking alcohol – there is an increased risk of breast cancer with each additional unit of alcohol consumed. 11
  • Being overweight
Does hormone replacement therapy (HRT) increase the risk of breast cancer?

There is convincing evidence that combined (oestrogen-progesterone) replacement therapy increases the risk of breast cancer.11

Risk increases with the duration of HRT use, and it is higher in those women who start replacement therapy close to their menopause.11

What can I do to decrease my risk of breast cancer?

There are several lifestyle factors you can control to help reduce your risk of developing breast cancer, including:

  • Get regular exercise – Cancer Australia recommends at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each day12
  • Eat a healthy, balanced diet – Eat a fibre-rich diet from grain and legume sources, as well as enjoy a variety of fruit (2 serves) and vegetables (5 serves) per day, limit your intake of salt, saturated fats, and avoid all processed meat13
  • Reduce alcohol intake – If you choose to drink, try to limit your alcohol intake to no more than two standard drinks a day. 11
  • Maintain a healthy weight – Cancer Australia recommends maintaining a healthy weight, within the normal BMI (Body Mass Index)* range of 18.5 – 24.9kg/m2.14

*To calculate your BMI = (weight (kg))/(height(m))2

Where can I find out more information about breast cancer staging?

The National Breast Cancer Foundation provides detailed information about the different stages of breast cancer.

How common is breast cancer in men?

Breast cancer in men is not that common, and only makes up approximately 1% of all breast cancer cases.

Like women, there are a number of factors that can increase the risk for breast cancer for men, including; 20

  • Age – the average age of breast cancer diagnosis is 69 years
  • Family history of breast cancer, or a known BRCA gene mutation
  • Hormonal imbalances – such as increased levels of oestrogens
  • Previous radiotherapy treatment

For more information, you can look at the Breast Cancer Network Australia’s booklet – ‘Men get breast cancer too’


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