Breast cancer, known in medical terms as mammary carcinoma, is the most common type of cancer among women. The risk of developing breast cancer increases after menopause, but young women can also suffer from the disease. Early detection is important, because breast cancer can be much more successfully treated when it is still in its early stage.
Breast cancer starts with an uncontrolled growth of cancer cells in the mammary gland. Often it can take years before the tumour reaches a size that can be seen or felt. The exact reasons why breast cancer develops are still largely unknown. Genetic predisposition, not having children, hormone therapy during menopause or excessive body weight are factors associated with an increased breast cancer risk. Genetic testing is advisable if several members of your family have suffered from breast cancer. Women who carry a mutation on the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes face a very high risk of developing breast cancer. Not all breast cancers are the same. Breast cancers are primarily differentiated according to the biological properties of the cancer cells. It is very important to determine whether the cancer is hormone receptor positive or HER2 receptor positive, because this greatly influences which therapy will be most effective.
In its early stages, breast cancer generally has only very minor symptoms or no symptoms at all. Therefore any change in the breast should be examined by a doctor, so that any signs of cancer can be identified as early as possible. Nodules or hardening of the breast, changes in the nipples, discharge from the nipples and changes in the shape of the breast are all possible indications of breast cancer. From the age of 50 onwards, women are recommended to have regular mammograms.
Mammography is the most important examination for diagnosing breast cancer. Mammograms make it possible to detect cancer in its very early stages. However, not every suspicious change detected by a mammogram is necessarily a sign of breast cancer. That is why if a doctor suspects a patient may have cancer, the diagnosis must always be confirmed by a biopsy examination.
The treatment of breast cancer depends on the type of breast cancer and its stage of development. Hormone positive breast cancers are treated with anti-hormone therapy. HER2-positive breast cancers are treated with special anti-HER2 medications. Before the medication therapy begins, the tumour is usually surgically removed. These days most surgical procedures do not involve the removal of the breast. Mastectomies, i.e. the complete removal of the breast, are now only necessary in exceptional cases. You can find out more about the surgical treatment options in the breast cancer surgery section. Surgery is often followed by radiation therapy.