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Breast Cancer: A Useful Guide

• Written by Katie


Every day in the UK, around 150 people receive a diagnosis of breast cancer. It's the most common form of cancer overall in the UK, accounting for around 15% of all cases, according to Cancer Research. It primarily affects women, but men can contract the disease in rare cases. On the Lifeline24 blog, we've already discussed cancer as part of our series on medical conditions affecting older people. Today, we'll be taking a closer look at breast cancer. This article will explain the symptoms, causes, and treatments for breast cancer. As our population ages, cases are on the rise. Therefore, it's more important than ever to stay informed.

Symptoms of Breast Cancer

Breast cancer has lots of different symptoms. Usually, the first noticeable symptom is a lump in the breast or armpit. If you don't check your breasts regularly, or you don't know what you're looking for, it could be easy to miss something important. With this in mind, here are the NHS guidelines for checking your breasts:

The NHS advises that you make an appointment with your GP if you notice any of the following changes:

  • a change in the size, outline or shape of your breast
  • a change in the look or feel of your skin, such as puckering or dimpling
  • a new lump, thickening or bumpy area in one breast or armpit that is different from the same area on the other side
  • nipple discharge that's not milky
  • bleeding from your nipple
  • a moist, red area on your nipple that doesn't heal easily
  • any change in nipple position, such as your nipple being pulled in or pointing differently
  • a rash on or around your nipple
  • any discomfort or pain in one breast, particularly if it's a new pain and doesn't go away (although pain is only a symptom of breast cancer in rare cases)

Causes of Breast Cancer

Now you know the signs to look out for, you might be wondering what causes breast cancer. Unfortunately, we don't currently have all the answers. While research continues, we don't yet know exactly what causes breast cancer. However, we do know some of the factors that can increase your risk of developing the disease.


While people of all ages can develop breast cancer, it is most common in older women. In fact, around 80% of cases occur in women over 50. Therefore, women between the ages of 50 and 70 should have screenings at least every 3 years. The NHS Breast Screening Programme offers these appointments.

Family History

Most instances of breast cancer do not run in families. However, there are certain genes which can increase your risk of developing breast or ovarian cancer. Therefore, if anyone in your family has had breast cancer or ovarian cancer, you might wish to speak to a GP.

Hormone Replacement Therapy

There are lots of forms of Hormone Replacement Therapy which can contribute to your breast cancer risk if you take it for more than a year. However, this risk returns to the normal level after you stop taking it. If you are taking any kind of HRT and you are worried about this risk, you should speak to your GP. The exception is vaginal oestrogen, which poses no additional risk.


Drinking increases your risk of several forms of cancer, including breast cancer. The more you drink, the more your risk increases.

Being Overweight

Carrying excess weight can also increase your risk, especially if you have already gone through the menopause. This is because your body produces more oestrogen if you are overweight and oestrogen can sometimes stimulate the growth of cancer cells.

Diagnosing Breast Cancer

If you are worried about your risk factor or you notice any of the symptoms described above, you should make an appointment with your GP as soon as possible. During your appointment, the doctor will examine you. Depending on their examination, they may refer you to a specialist breast cancer clinic.

There, you'll likely have a mammogram (an X-Ray of your breasts) and possibly an ultrasound scan too.


In addition, the doctor might take a biopsy (a sample of tissue). There are a few different kinds of biopsy. Which kind you have will depend on your individual case. Types of biopsy include:

  • Fine needle aspiration - this uses a very fine needle and syringe to take a sample of breast tissue cells.
  • Needle biopsy - a hollow needle is used to take a sample of cells from the breast tissue. You will have an ultrasound at the same time to find the best site for the biopsy. The doctor will numb the area with a local anaesthetic.
  • Punch biopsy - instead of a needle, the doctor uses a small cutting device like a tiny apple corer to take a circular sample of skin and tissue. This will be done under local anaesthetic too.
  • Vacuum assisted biopsy - after abnormal tissue has been identified with an ultrasound, the doctor uses a hollow needle to remove it. You will be given a local anaesthetic to numb the area.
  • Wire-guided excision biopsy - if an ultrasound detects abnormal tissue but the doctor can't feel a lump, you might have this procedure. Under local anaesthetic, a thin wire will be inserted into the breast tissue to indicate the location of the abnormality. Then, under general anaesthetic, you will have a small operation to remove the abnormal tissue and take out the guide wire.

If you receive a breast cancer diagnosis, the doctor will also tell you what stage your cancer is at. You might need additional tests such as a CT or MRI scan to confirm this. The stages go from 1 to 4 in order of size and whether it has spread to other parts of the body.

Treatment for Breast Cancer

Once you have received a diagnosis of breast cancer, you will start treatment as soon as possible. There are several different treatments available. The MDT (multidisciplinary team) in charge of your care will assess the best option for you based on the size and location of your cancer, among many other factors.


The majority of people will be able to have surgery as part of their treatment for breast cancer. In most cases, this will be a lumpectomy, where surgeons remove the cancerous tissue alongside a border of healthy breast tissue. However, patients normally have the option to choose a mastectomy instead, which is where surgeons remove the entire breast. If you opt for mastectomy, you can have a new breast made via reconstructive surgery. There are pros and cons to both options, so your doctor can help you decide.

If you choose a lumpectomy, you will generally need radiotherapy for several weeks after surgery. If you choose mastectomy on the other hand, you will not usually need radiotherapy after surgery.


If you have radiotherapy, it will usually come a little while after surgery or chemotherapy treatment, in order to reduce the risk of cancer returning. This form of treatment uses X-Rays to kill cancer cells. In most cases, you will have treatment in hospital every weekday for 3-5 weeks, with breaks at the weekends. Side effects can include tiredness and redness or darkness around the treatment area.


If you have a large tumour or your cancer has spread to other parts of your body, you might have chemotherapy before surgery. This aims to shrink the tumour before surgical treatment. Alternatively, you could have chemotherapy after surgery if the tumour was particularly large or was not receptive to hormone treatment.

Chemotherapy consists of a combination of drugs which you receive directly into your bloodstream. Since treatment runs in cycles, with appointments every 2 to 4 weeks, you will probably have a central line or PICC line put in, which will stay in place throughout the course of your treatment.

Side effects can include nausea, tiredness, weight loss, and hair loss. Chemotherapy can also affect fertility, so speak to your doctor if you are hoping to have a child in the future.

Staying Safe With a Lifeline Alarm.

A Lifeline alarm could be a great solution for someone with breast cancer who is worried about their health and wellbeing. A personal alarm ensures that you can always call for assistance whenever you need it. Whenever an alarm user feels ill or has a fall, they simply need to press the button on their Lifeline pendant. This will raise an alarm call, which our Emergency Response Team will answer within seconds. They will assess your situation and send help immediately.

For more information on this life-saving service, call us on 0800 999 0400 or get in touch online using our Contact Us form. You can also order a Lifeline alarm online.

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