Breast cancer is the most common cancer diagnosed in women. Although it can occur at any age it is more common in older women. In most cases, if breast cancer is found early, the chances of surviving are higher.
Cancer Council recommends:
- all women, regardless of age, be ‘breast aware’ by familiarising themselves with the normal look and feel of their breasts
- women aged 50-74 have a free breast screen every two years with BreastScreen SA
- seeing a GP as soon as possible if any breast changes are noticed.
Early detection of breast cancer
If breast cancer is found at an early stage, the chances of surviving are higher. Having a regular breast screen can find breast cancer early, often before you can feel it, and when it is small and easy to treat. It is important that all women aged 50-74 have a free breast screen every two years with BreastScreen SA.
Women aged 40-49 and over 75 can also screen for free with BreastScreen SA. However, they are encouraged first speak to their GP to find out if breast screening is right for them
Call BreastScreen SA on 13 20 50 to book your free breast screen.
A breast screen is also known as a screening mammogram and is a low dose x-ray of a woman’s breasts. A breast screen is currently the best test available to find breast cancer early in women who do not have symptoms.
Screening mammography is not an effective screening method for women under the age of 40. If you are younger than 40 and have a family history of breast cancer or are concerned about your breast cancer risk, see your GP.
Every woman should look at and feel her breasts regularly. It is important to know what is normal for you and to see your GP if you notice any unusual changes or have any concerns.
There is no right or wrong way to check your breasts. Remember to check all parts of your breasts, your armpits and up to your collarbone. Your breasts may look or feel different at different times during your menstrual cycle, so it may be helpful to check your breasts approximately one week after your menstrual period finishes.
If you notice any of the following changes, see your GP as soon as possible:
- a lump, lumpiness or thickening of the breast
- changes in the skin of the breast, such as puckering, dimpling or a rash
- persistent or unusual breast pain
- a change in the shape or size of the breast
- discharge from a nipple, a nipple rash or a change in its shape.
Both women and men are at risk of developing breast cancer, and many factors can increase the risk of breast cancer. However, research shows that people with certain risk factors are more likely to develop breast cancer. For more information about breast cancer risk factors, visit breastcancerriskfactors.gov.au.
Female specific risk factors include:
- personal factors – older age and dense breast tissue as seen on a mammogram
- lifestyle factors – being overweight or gaining weight after menopause, drinking alcohol every day and not being physically active
- medical factors – using menopause hormone therapy (MHT) that contains both oestrogen and progestogen, taking the pill for a long time (small increase), taking diethylstilboestrol (DES) during pregnancy, having radiation therapy to the chest for Hodgkin lymphoma, having atypical ductal hyperplasia or proliferative disease without atypia, and previous diagnosis of LCIS or DCIS
- reproductive factors – starting first period younger than 12, being older than 30 at the birth of first child, not giving birth, not having breastfed and going through menopause after 55
- family history factors – a family history of breast cancer and/or a particular type of ovarian cancer in first degree relatives (e.g. mother or sister) on the same side of the family, especially if diagnosed at a young age.
Male specific risk factors include:
- personal factors – older age
- medical factors – a rare genetic syndrome called Klinefelter syndrome—males with this syndrome have three sex chromosomes (XXY) instead of the usual two (XY).
- family history factors – a family history with several first-degree relatives (male or female) who have had BRCA2 breast cancer; a relative diagnosed with breast cancer under the age of 40; or several relatives diagnosed with ovarian, colon or prostate cancer.
Inherited breast cancer gene
Most people diagnosed with breast cancer don’t have a family history of the disease. However, a small number of people may have inherited a gene fault that increases their breast cancer risk. Everyone inherits a set of genes from each parent, so they have two copies of each gene. Sometimes there is a fault in one copy of a gene. This fault is called a mutation or pathogenic variant.
The two most common gene mutations linked to breast cancer are the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. Other types include CDH1, PTEN, STK11, TP53, PALB2, ATM and CHEK2. Women in families with an inherited BRCA1 or BRCA2 change are at increased risk of breast and ovarian cancers. Men in families with an inherited BRAC2 change may be at an increased risk of breast and prostate cancers. To find out if you have inherited a gene mutation, you can visit a family cancer clinic.
If you are concerned about your risk of breast cancer, see your GP.
You may have an increased risk of breast cancer if there is a family history of breast cancer and/or a particular type of ovarian cancer in first degree relatives (e.g. mother or sister) on the same side of the family, especially if diagnosed at a young age.
Breast cancer is a common cancer in Australian women. Fewer than five per cent of all breast cancers are associated with a family history, so it is still important to have a breast screen every two years from the age of 50 even if you do not have a family history of breast cancer.
If you are concerned about your risk of breast cancer, see your GP.
Research suggests that many cases of breast cancer can be prevented by leading a healthy lifestyle.
To reduce the risk of breast cancer:
- maintain a healthy body weight
- get 30 minutes of vigorous or 60 minutes of moderate intensity exercise on five or more days per week
- avoid or limit alcohol.
Cancer Australia—Breast cancer.
Breast cancer risk factors—More information about the risk factors and protective factors for breast cancer.
Cancer Council’s National Cancer Prevention Policy—Breast cancer.
Diethylstilbestrol (DES) and Cancer—DES was taken by some women from the 1950s to the 1970s to try and prevent miscarriage and other pregnancy complications. Although the majority of persons exposed to DES—during pregnancy or in utero, will not experience any negative health effects, available research findings indicate that exposure to DES increases the risk of some health problems including some cancers.
This webpage was last reviewed and updated in July 2022.