THANKS to awareness campaigns and high-profile celebrities sharing their experiences of the disease, the majority of us have some understanding of breast cancer and what to look out for.

Recent statistics indicate 55,000 new cases in women and 370 in men per year in the UK.

Globally this equates to 2.3 million diagnoses and sadly 685,000 deaths annually.

Worldwide it is the second most common cancer in women, ranking just behind skin cancer, and the second highest cause of cancer related deaths in females, lung cancer coming first.

Despite these figures, in the developed world, survival has doubled in the last 40 years through a combination of education and advances in screening and treatments.

At the present time 85 per cent of women in the western hemisphere will live five or more years after a diagnosis. However, breast self-awareness still appears to be low.

Almost half of UK women do not check themselves regularly for signs of breast cancer, with a recent survey for the charity Breast Cancer Now revealing that 1 in 10 admitted to never self-examining.

The commonest sited reason for this was having forgot. You don’t need to be an expert, or to be able to examine your breasts in the way a professional would. All you need is an understanding of what is normal for you, from which you can then spot any alterations or signs of potential concern.

A lump is not the only thing to be aware of. Other symptoms to look out for include breast pain even in the absence of a lump, a lump in the armpit, change in the shape of the breast, and skin alterations including how it looks and feels, as well as colour. Any nipple pain, discharge or bleeding should not be ignored.

There isn’t any need to set aside a regular slot either, if you spot anything, seek immediate medical help. This being said, thankfully the majority of breast changes will not be cancer.

The biggest risk factors for breast cancer are those which cannot be changed – female sex, and the aging process. More than eighty percent of breast cancers occur in those without a family history of the disease. A family history is typically one first degree relative with the disease under 40, or two first degree relatives with breast cancer under 50.

Certain genes, notably BRCA 1 and 2, and PALB-2 are associated with a significantly increased risk of breast cancer. If you are found to have these, discussions with a specialist may include prophylactic surgery, before breast cancer develops.

Although lifestyle factors are commonly discussed in preventing any disease, they are often overlooked in practice.

A healthy diet, regular moderate cardiovascular exercise and not smoking are the pillars of longevity for many.

Several high-quality studies have revealed the uncomfortable truth that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption and that even one unit of alcohol daily on a regular basis will increase the risk of breast cancer.

Drinking more than one unit and/or binge drinking may magnify this, especially in those who have other risk factors for breast cancer.

When alcohol is broken down it produces a chemical called acetaldehyde. Acetaldehyde interferes with DNA, needed for cells to replicate properly.

Faulty replication is one of the pathways in the development of cancer.

Alcohol is also associated with raised levels of the hormone oestrogen in the circulation. If a cancer is oestrogen receptor positive, this will drive its growth.

The message isn’t to stop drinking alcohol altogether, but that anyone who does drink is fully aware of the risks, which also include higher rates of head and neck, gullet, stomach and liver cancer.

Obesity has been linked with up to 30 per cent increase in the risk of breast cancer, again due to raised levels of oestrogen as well as impaired blood sugar regulation, among many potential causes.

While the above may seem bewildering or frightening, as mentioned earlier, breast cancer survival has increased notably in developed countries.

From a personal point of view awareness of your breasts (this applies to men too) as well as a healthy lifestyle are key. Any suspected breast cancer will be seen under the two-week rule, and even breast symptoms less likely to indicate malignancy will be rapidly assessed due to the understanding that there will be significant patient anxiety.

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