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Last Updated on 12 November 2019

THINK PINK! Together, we can beat breast cancer. Here’s how


We’re all affected by breast cancer, whether it’s us, a friend or a loved one that receives a diagnosis. And while we’ve come a long way in understanding and treating the disease, there’s still a lot we don’t know.

Whether you suspect you have breast cancer, have been diagnosed, or know someone who has, this guide aims to equip you with facts and reassurance in order to make this life-changing ordeal even just the slightest bit lighter.

So, what can you do to prevent breast cancer and support yourself or loved ones undergoing treatment? Together, we can beat breast cancer. According to preventcancer.org:

If diagnosed early and treated before it spreads, the five-year survival rate for breast cancer is 99%.

What do we know about breast cancer?

Breast cancer occurs when cells in the breast tissue grow abnormally and at a rapid rate. Cells aggregate and form a lump called a tumor. The tumor compresses the tissues in your breast and siphons nourishment away from healthy body cells. Eventually, cancer cells may spread via your lymph vessels to other parts of the body (a process called metastasis).

Breast cancer can be hereditary, but we also know that a range of risk and lifestyle factors increase a person’s chances of developing the disease. According to preventcancer.org these include:

  • Having abnormal genes (such as mutated BRCA-1, BRCA-2 or PALB-2)
  • Starting your menstrual period before age 12
  • Experiencing the beginning of menopause after age 55
  • Using birth control pills
  • Smoking or using tobacco
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Lack of exercise
  • Already having had cancer in one breast
  • Having had radiation therapy close to chest
  • Being aged over 40

Fast facts about breast cancer

  • From 2016 to 2019, breast cancer has been the fourth leading cause of death from cancer in Australia, and the second leading cause of death from cancer among women.
  • It usually affects mainly older women above the age of 50, but it can occur in younger women as well.
  • Men can get breast cancer too: estimates say that 164 new cases of breast cancer in men will be diagnosed in 2019.
  • There is a higher chance that you will get breast cancer if you have a first-degree family member who has had it: a parent, sibling, or child. However, it is important to note that this is not an absolute rule.
  • Survival rates for breast cancer have improved in recent years. Women with breast cancer have a 91% chance of surviving for five years after their diagnosis; men have an 85% chance.

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How can I prevent breast cancer? When should I get checked for it?

Maintaining certain lifestyle factors can help to prevent breast cancer. These include:

  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Eating well and limiting alcohol consumption to no more than one drink a day for women and two a day for men
  • Exercising regularly—30 minutes, 5 days a week
  • Quitting smoking/saying no to cigarettes

The sooner you catch breast cancer, the better—the outlook is very good when found early on. In addition to making lifestyle changes for prevention, regular checkups and screenings can provide peace of mind at the least. Here’s what you can do:

  • In your 20s and 30s, have a clinical breast exam (CBE) at least once every three years
  • When you turn 40, have a CBE and mammogram at least once a year
  • If you have a family history of breast cancer or are high risk, it’s worth talking to your doctor about beginning annual mammograms earlier and/or having an MRI scan
  • Get to know your breasts. What’s normal and what’s not? If you notice any changes in the look or feel, see a healthcare professional

Common symptoms of breast cancer include:

  • A palpable lump in the breast
  • Change in the size, shape or general appearance of the breast
  • Dimpling or pitting of the skin of your breast (making it resemble an orange peel)
  • Inversion of the nipple

You may have found a lump in your breast during a breast examination, or it may have shown up via digital imaging on a mammogram. To confirm a diagnosis of breast cancer, your oncologist will perform a biopsy—a procedure that removes a small part of the tumor and tests for cancer cells.

A biopsy is the only way to know for sure if the lump in your breast is really cancer. It will also inform your doctors of the stage (how far the cancer has spread) and grade (how fast it is growing) of the cancer.

I have breast cancer. What do I do now?

It can be upsetting—and frightening—to hear that you have cancer. You may suddenly feel like there isn’t enough time for you to do the things you want to accomplish, and you may feel scared of leaving your loved ones behind. While cancer remains a serious disease, modern medicine has significantly improved breast cancer survival rates.

This is, in part, due to the availability of new treatment regimens for breast cancer. Here are a few treatment options you can expect:

  • Surgery is the most popular method of managing breast cancer. Depending on your case, you may undergo a lumpectomy (which removes only the tumor and allows you to retain most of your breast tissue) or a mastectomy (which removes the entire breast).
  • After surgery, your treatment plan may be supplemented with radiation therapy to kill any remaining cancer cells.
  • You may also opt for chemotherapy, which uses drugs instead of radiation to kill remaining cancer cells. Drugs are taken intravenously or orally, and will be administered in cycles every few weeks for a duration of several months. This facet of treatment is what causes the hair loss we see in cancer patients.
  • Hormone treatment is also an option. Breast tumors thrive when estrogen levels are up, so taking drugs that keep them down will help keep the cancer at bay. Tamoxifen, a popular cancer drug, blocks the hormone estrogen. Many doctors prescribe it in the years after your initial treatment as a maintenance drug against cancer.

With a cancer diagnosis, you may not be able to engage in the same kind of work you used to, or put in the same number of hours. Now may be a good time to look into your options for financial support. You can:

  • Apply for assistance from Centrelink and receive a pension to support your modified lifestyle
  • Review your health cover to see where you can defray expenses for treatments

Of course, support isn’t just about making ends meet day-to-day. The experience of cancer and the subsequent rigors of treatment can be daunting, saddening, and isolating. It is vital that you reach out to loved ones who will be able to listen to your fears, keep you company on difficult days, and remind you why life is worth fighting for.

If you find yourself in crisis, it might be helpful to seek professional help from a psychologist as well.

It is important to remember that there is life after cancer, and there’s a strong chance that you will be around to see it. After finishing your rounds of treatment, you may have to modify certain aspects of your lifestyle such as diet and exercise. You’ll have to come in for regular follow-ups and adhere to maintenance medications. If you like, you might even consider reconstructive surgery if you’ve had a mastectomy to help you feel comfortable in your body again.

Despite these adjustments, it is still possible to enjoy a full, adventurous, and purposeful life with your loved ones after breast cancer. It’s a deeply personal process that will run on your own time, and what this new life will look like will be up to you to discover.

Resources for breast cancer support:

Cancer Council: Speak to a specially trained staff member on 13 11 20, gain the support you need (whether emotional or practical) and have your cancer-related questions answered.

Breast Cancer Network Australia: Offers those diagnosed with breast cancer and their families quality support and up-to-date information.

The National Breast Cancer Foundation: Funds research into the prevention and treatment of breast cancer.

A loved one has breast cancer. What can I do?

If someone you love develops breast cancer, here are some ways you can step up and show your support:

  • Start by educating yourself. The more you understand the disease and treatment methods, the more you can be considerate of your loved one as they go through this experience. Knowing the facts can help allay your fears about their diagnosis too, which puts you in a better position to support them when they express their concerns to you.
  • Be useful. Someone who has cancer will not be at the top of their game when it comes to daily tasks. Offer to take chores or childcare off their hands. Give them presents that will be useful during treatment, like comfy sweaters or pill boxes.
  • Chip in. If they will allow it, you might even set up a fund among close friends and family to help support their expenses during treatment. Take care to respect patient privacy when asking for assistance from others.
  • Accept them as they are—but don’t make their identity all about their disease. The experience of cancer will change a person in ways they may not want or can control. It is your job to make them feel that you still love and accept them no matter how their bodies or temperaments may have changed because of their illness. On the flip side, be mindful of the fact that their disease does not define them – they deserve to have their strength and independence recognised just as firmly as if they did not have breast cancer.

What financial assistance is available to ease the cost of treating breast cancer?

Medicare provides assistance to Australians undergoing cancer treatment. However, it’s important to note that without hospital cover in place, you’ll have less flexibility in choosing who will treat you and where. Waiting times should also be considered, though these are determined by urgency. Australian Government data indicates that hospital waiting times are typically from nine to fourteen days for malignant cancer surgery.

Private health insurance grants you the ability to choose your doctor and receive treatment as a private patient in a private facility. The level of cover you choose will determine what benefits you receive. Your cover can work alongside Medicare to cover you in the following ways:

  • Cancer treatments and associated hospital costs like doctor’s fees, prescription medication and accommodation
  • Psychology services to assist with helping and supporting you throughout your journey
  • Rehabilitation costs—physiotherapy, speech therapy or other services as needed to help you recover

Our guide on cancer treatment and health insurance provides more information on common forms of cancer treatment and the coverage options available.

How can I raise awareness about breast cancer?

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. While our improved survival rates are proof of success, we still have a long way to go when it comes to saving as many people as possible from breast cancer.

Here are a few things you can do to get involved, not only during breast cancer awareness month, but all year round. Together, we can make a difference in preventing breast cancer:

  • Educate others about the importance of breast cancer screening. Survival rates are higher when breast cancer is caught early. Women should get mammograms every year starting at the age of 45, then every other year after passing the age of 55. Women of all ages should also perform a breast self examination (BSE) on the regular every month to check for lumps.
  • Promote a healthy lifestyle. Cancer risk is heightened in individuals who eat unhealthy food and don’t get enough exercise. Through living a healthy lifestyle by example, you might not only be helping loved ones avert a cancer diagnosis, but you could be sparing yourself from one too.
  • Participate in efforts to raise awareness about breast cancer. Wear a pink ribbon, speak about your experience, share articles and stories on breast cancer. Even the smallest nudge can make a difference.
  • Donate, volunteer or take part in breast cancer research. For more information, visit bcna.org.au/get-involved/


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