8 important breast cancer awareness questions answered


October is breast cancer awareness month, and in the spirit of helping raise awareness and sharing vital information that could save your life or help you understand it better, here are some important things you need to know about breast cancer.

1. What exactly is breast cancer? 

This is a kind of cancer that develops from breast cells.

2. Is it hereditary? 

About 5-10% of breast cancer cases are thought to be hereditary, meaning that they result directly from gene defects (called mutations) passed on from a parent.

3. How does one get breast cancer?

There are various risk factors that one can and those that cannot be changed.

Risk factors that cannot be changed
- Being a woman
Breast cancer is about 100 times more common in women than in men.

- Getting older
Most invasive breast cancers are found in women aged 55 and older.

- Certain inherited genes
About 5-10% of breast cancer cases are thought to be hereditary.

- Having a family history of breast cancer
Having a first-degree relative (mother, sister, or daughter) with breast cancer almost doubles a woman’s risk. Having 2 first-degree relatives increases her risk about 3-fold.

- Having a personal history of breast cancer
A woman with cancer in one breast has a higher risk of developing a new cancer in the other breast or in another part of the same breast.

- Your race and ethnicity
White women are slightly more likely to develop breast cancer, but breast cancer is more common in African women under 45 years of age.

- Having dense breast tissue
Women with dense breasts on a mammogram have a 1.2-2 times greater risk of breast cancer.

- Certain benign breast conditions
Women diagnosed with certain benign (non-cancer) breast conditions may have a higher risk of breast cancer.

- Starting menstruation (periods) before age 12
Women who have had more menstrual cycles because they started menstruating early (before age 12) have a slightly higher risk of breast cancer.

- Going through menopause after age 55 
Women who have had more menstrual cycles because they went through menopause later (after age 55) have a slightly higher risk of breast cancer.

- Exposure to radiation to the chest 
Women who have been treated with radiation therapy to the chest have a significantly higher risk for breast cancer.


- Exposure to diethylstilbestrol (DES)
Women who have used DES to prevent miscarriages are at an increased risk of developing breast cancer. Similarly, women whose mothers took DES during pregnancy may also have a slightly higher risk of breast cancer.

Lifestyle-related breast cancer risk factors

- Drinking alcohol
Women who have 2-5 drinks daily have about a 1.5 times greater risk of developing breast cancer.

- Being overweight or obese
Being overweight or obese after menopause can increase breast cancer risk.

- Physical activity
As little as 80 minutes to 2.5 hours per week of brisk walking can reduce a woman’s risk by 18%.

- Having children
Women who have not had children or who had their first child after age 30 have a slightly higher breast cancer risk overall.

- Oral contraceptives/birth control pills and birth control injection
Women using birth control pills or the injection have a slightly higher risk of breast cancer than women who have never used them. Once the intervention is stopped, this risk seems to go back to normal over time.

- Hormone therapy after menopause
Women who use hormone therapy after menopause have an increased risk of breast cancer.

- Chemicals in the environment
Substances found in some plastics, certain cosmetics and personal care products, pesticides and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) seem to have cancer-inducing properties.

- Tobacco smoke
Heavy smoking over a long-time is linked to a higher risk of breast cancer.

- Night work
Women who work at night have an increased risk of breast cancer.


4. How can breast cancer be prevented?

Early detection is key to preventing breast cancer. Prevention and early detection can be achieved by having regular check-ups through mammograms and ultrasounds and performing breast self-examinations.

Genetic testing can be done to look for mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes (or less commonly in other genes such as PTEN or TP53). While testing can be helpful in some cases, the pros and cons need to be considered carefully.


5. How do you detect breast cancer? 

- Breast self-examination, ultrasound and mammogram, genetic testing.

6. How regularly should women be tested for breast cancer?

A mammogram and/or ultrasound should be performed once a year after 35 years of age. Self-examination should also be performed once a month.

7. What are the different stages of breast cancer?

Stage 1:
Stage 1A: A tumour that is 2cm or smaller and has not spread outside the breast.
Stage 1B: Small areas of breast cancer cells are found in the lymph nodes close to the breast and either
- No tumour is found in the breast or,
- The tumour is 2cm or smaller.

Stage 2:
Stage 2A: 
- There is no tumour or a tumour 2cm or smaller in the breast and cancer cells are found in 1-3 lymph nodes in the armpit or in the lymph nodes near the breastbone or,
- The tumour is larger than 2cm but not larger than 5cm and there is no cancer in the lymph nodes.

Stage 2B:
- The tumour is larger than 2cm but not larger than 5cm and small areas of cancer cells are in the lymph nodes or,
- The tumour is larger than 2cm but not larger than 5cm and the cancer has spread to 1-3 lymph nodes in the armpit or to the lymph nodes near the breastbone or,
- The tumour is larger than 5cm and has not spread to the lymph nodes.

Stage 3: 
Stage 3A: 
- No tumour is seen in the breast or the tumour may be any size and cancer is found in 4-9 lymph glands under the arm or in the lymph glands near the breastbone or
- The tumour is larger than 5cm and small clusters of breast cancer cells are in the lymph nodes or
- The tumour is more than 5cm and has spread into up to 3 lymph nodes in the armpit or to the lymph nodes near the breastbone.

Stage 3B:
- The tumour has spread to the skin of the breast or to the chest wall, and made the skin break down (an ulcer) or caused swelling.
- The cancer may have spread to up to 9 lymph nodes in the armpit or to the lymph glands near the breastbone.

Stage 3C:
The tumour can be any size, or there may be no tumour, but there is cancer in the skin of the breast causing swelling or an ulcer and it has spread to the chest wall. It has also spread to
- 10 or more lymph nodes in the armpit
- Lymph nodes above or below the collarbone
- Lymph nodes in the armpit and near the breastbone

Stage 4:
- The tumour can be any size.
- The lymph nodes may or may not contain cancer cells.
- The cancer has spread (metastasised) to other parts of the body.

8. What options do diagnosed women have?

- Surgery
- Radiotherapy
- Chemotherapy
- Hormone therapy
- Biological treatments

We aim to assist in the prevention of breast cancer by sharing solutions that target the modifiable risk factors. This includes:

- Our partnership with Smokenders and Eat4Life offers members great discounts.
- Great discounts on Virgin Active and Planet Fitness, Curves, GO Health and other gym memberships.