The breast is made up of millions of cells. Breast cancer develops when a single cell or group of cells begin to multiply out of control and form a tumour. The breast consists of fatty tissue and lobules that are connected to the nipple by ducts.

Breast cancer usually starts in the cell that line a duct or lobule. Sometimes cells can break away and travel to other parts of the body starting new tumours.

What are the risk factors?

Even if you have one or more of the risk factors below, it doesn’t mean you will definitely develop breast cancer.

Age

The risk of developing breast cancer goes up with age. The older you are, the greater your chances of developing the disease. Around four out of five breast cancers occur in women aged 50 and over.

Hormones and reproduction

The female sex hormone, oestrogen, can affect the development of breast cancer. Many of the things that affect the risk of breast cancer can be explained through their effect on hormone levels.

Taking hormone replacement therapy (HRT) or oral contraceptives (also known as the Pill) increase the risk of breast cancer. However, HRT is an effective treatment for menopausal symptoms, and the Pill also reduces the risk of ovarian and womb cancers. If you are considering starting or stopping HRT or the Pill, or if you have any concerns, see your doctor. Starting your period at a young age or having a late menopause increases the risk of breast cancer. Having children and breastfeeding both lower the chances of developing the disease. The more children a woman has, and the younger she is when she has them, the lower the risk.

Family history

Women who have relatives with breast cancer have a higher risk of developing the disease themselves. Risk increases with the number of close relatives diagnosed. But even so, nine out of 10 breast cancers occur in women with no close relatives diagnosed with the disease. If you are worried about your risk, speak to your doctor. If appropriate, they may refer you to a breast care unit or genetic clinic.

What reduces your risk?

Healthy weight

Being overweight after the menopause increases a woman’s risk of breast cancer. Try to maintain a healthy weight by combining a balanced, low fat diet with regular physical activity.

Limit alcohol

Drinking alcohol raises the risk of breast cancer. The more you cut down on alcohol, the more you can reduce the risk of breast cancer and many other cancers.

Physical activity

Women who are physically active are less likely to develop breast cancer than less active women. Try to do at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity five times or more a week. The more active you are, the more you can reduce the risk.

Not smoking

Some research suggest that smoking increases the risk of breast cancer.

Breast Screening

Screening involves taking x-rays of the breasts (mammography). Breast screening aims to find cancers at an early stage when they are too small for you to see or feel. When breast cancer is found at an early stage, there is an excellent chance of successful treatments. As well as picking up cancers that need treating, it can also pick up benign tumours that will not cause any problem in a woman’s lifetime.

There are benefits and risks of breast screening, and women need clear information about these to help make a decision about whether to go for screening. Young women are advised to have ultrasounds due to radiation exposure and density of the breast tissue.

Breast screening is not the only way to spot breast cancer early. It is important to be ‘breast aware’ and have any changes to your breast checked out. If you notice any unusual changes to the size, feel or shape of your breast, it is worth checking with your doctor.

What changes should I look for?

  1. Changes in the size or feel of your breast
  2. A new lump or thickening in one breast or armpit
  3. Any puckering, dimpling or redness of the skin
  4. Changes in the position of the nipple, a rash or nipple discharge
  5. Pain or discomfort that is new to you and felt only on one side.

If you notice any of these or any other unusual changes to your breast, see your doctor.

Health Guide with The Nairobi Hospital