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Breast Cancer

  • What is Breast Cancer?

    Breast cancer

    Breast cancer is an abnormal growth of cells in the breast that can sometimes be felt as a lump or mass called a tumour. The tumour develops when cells in the breast divide without control and produce extra tissue. A breast tumour can be benign (non-cancerous) or malignant (cancerous). Cancerous cells can spread within the breast, to lymph nodes (glands) in your armpit, and to other parts of your body.

    The causes of breast cancer are not known. It sometimes occurs in women who have family members with the disease (a genetic cause) or who started to menstruate from a young age (a hormonal cause). Normal female hormones control the division of cells in the breast, and may trigger breast cancer. Women over the age of 40 years old are more likely to get breast cancer than younger women.

  • Symptoms of Breast Cancer

    Infographic breast cancer symptoms

    The symptoms of breast cancer may include any of the following:

    • A painless lump in the breast
    • Bleeding or unusual discharge from the nipple
    • Dimpled or puckered skin over the breast
    • Persistent itch and rash around the nipple
    • Pulled in or retracted nipple
    • Swollen and thickened skin over the breast
  • Detection of Breast Cancer

    Breast anatomy with cancerous tumour and benign lump

    Breast Self-examination

    Breast cancer is one of the few cancers that can be detected by the patient at home through self-examination. The patient should become familiar with the shape, form and feel of her breasts so as to recognise any changes, such as lumps. Regular self-examination can help to detect breast cancer early before it spreads, which usually accounts for more successful treatment. Some things to note regarding self-examination include:

    • Breast self-examination should be done monthly, preferably about a week after the last menstrual period starts.
    • If the patient no longer has menses, she should perform breast self-examination on the same day of each month, for example the first of every month.

    During self-examination, the patient should look out for:

    • A lump, swelling, or thickening in the breast or underarm area
    • Changes in the size or shape of one breast
    • Puckering or dimpling of the skin of the breast or nipple
    • Persistent rash or change in the skin around the nipple
    • Recent changes in the nipple, eg. inversion, retraction
    • Any bleeding or unusual discharge from the nipple
    • Skin redness or soreness of the breast
    • Accentuated veins on the surface of the breast
    • Unusual swelling of one upper arm
    • Any enlarged lymph nodes in the armpit and collarbone areas

    Look for visible changes in the breasts and nipples by turning them slowly from side to side and feel for changes in the breasts, underarm, and collarbone areas.

    If you notice a lump in your breast, or if you suspect that you may have breast cancer, it is advisable to consult a doctor and undergo in-depth tests such as a mammogram.


    A mammogram is a screening procedure that uses a special machine to take x-ray pictures of the breast. The x-ray pictures make it possible to detect cancerous tumours that cannot be felt by hand, or lumps in the breast that are not yet cancerous but may grow into cancerous tumours. The mammogram is currently one of the most reliable screening tools for breast cancer. Regular mammograms can help detect breast cancer early, thus allowing for early treatment. It is recommended for women between 40 – 49 years old to take annual mammograms.

    MRI Breast

    A breast MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) is a special screening procedure that takes images of the breast using strong magnetic fields and radio waves. A breast MRI is not a replacement for a mammogram. It is used as a supplemental tool to mammograms, usually when there is an abnormality on the mammogram that cannot be conclusively determined as a cancerous lump.

    A breast MRI can be used to provide the doctor with detailed information on the position of the cancer as it creates images of the breast tissue. It is also used to check the site after treatment to determine if the cancer still remains.

    In some cases, a breast MRI is used to screen for breast cancer in women who are at high risk of breast cancer, such as those who have a family history of breast cancer or younger women due to higher breast tissue density.

  • Breast Cancer Treatment

    Mammogram machine for breast cancer detection

    Depending on the stages of breast cancer, you may be recommended to undergo an operation to remove the tumour. This may be:

    • Breast conserving surgery:
      1. Lumpectomy — removal of the cancer and some of the surrounding tissue
      2. Quadrantectomy — removal of 1/4 of the breast that contains the lump and surrounding tissue
    • Mastectomy — removal of the whole breast

    Other treatments include:

    • Drug therapy to destroy the cancer cells
      1. Chemotherapy
      2. Hormonal therapy
      3. Targeted therapy
    • Radiation therapy (high-energy x-rays) to destroy the cancer cells
    • Rehabilitation
      1. Nutrition and lifestyle support to help you recover
      2. Shoulder exercises and arm care to avoid stiffness and swelling

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