What is breast cancer?

It is really important to be aware of your breasts and know what is normal for you.

In Australia, Breast Cancer is the most common cancer in women and the second most common cancer to cause death in women.

Breast Cancer can occur in anyone with breast tissue – so men and women, transgender and non-binary.


Breast cancer occurs when cells within the breast grow in an uncontrolled chaotic way. This chaotic growth will lead to a breast lump and if not picked up the chaotic cells can potentially spread to other parts of the body.  The aim is to pick the lump up as soon as possible, when it is small and hasn’t spread leading to an increased rate of survival.

On first identification of the lump, either by self-examination, a doctor exam or a mammogram, some may not have any other symptoms. Others may experience the following:

  • new lumps or thickening in the breast or under the arm
  • nipple sores
  • nipple discharge or nipple inversion
  • changes in the size or shape of the breast
  • dimpling of the breast skin
  • rash or red swollen breasts.

Pain is rare. 


No one causes has been found for breast cancer. However there are factors that can increase the risk. These include:

  • Increasing age
  • Family history
  • Inheritance of mutations in the genes BRCA2, BRCA1  (more common with Ashkenazi Jewish heritage) and CHEK2
  • Exposure to female hormones (natural and administered)
  • A previous breast cancer diagnosis
  • A past history of certain non-cancerous breast conditions.
  • Being overweight
  • Not enough physical activity
  • Drinking alcohol

Diagnosing Breast Cancer

A lump that has been identified can never be diagnosed100% without imaging. So if a lump is discovered you will first be referred for imaging. This most commonly involves a Mammogram or an Ultrasound scan, or both may occur. If after imaging the lump cannot be 100% diagnosed a biopsy will then be organised, where a small sample of the lump is taken to be looked at under a microscope. The lump is usually then diagnosed at a cellular level.

Screening for breast Cancer

To increase survival rate we want to diagnose a breast cancer before it causes symptoms when the lump is tiny and possibly not even felt on examination. This is why screening exists and why it is so important. Screening aims to increase your survival rate by early diagnosis.

Women aged between 50 and 74 are invited to access free screening mammograms every two years via the BreastScreen Australia Program. https://www.breastscreen.org.au/

Women aged 40-49 and 75 and over are also eligible to receive free mammograms on request, however they do not receive an invitation to attend.

It is recommended that women with a strong family history of breast or ovarian cancer aged between 40 and 49 or over 75 should discuss options with their GP, or contact BreastScreen Australia on 13 20 50


The current recommendations is to “know your breasts”. You do not need to do full regular specific examinations, you just need to ensure you know what is normal for you at each stage of your cycle, so that you can confidently pick up something abnormal.  Everyone’s breasts look and feel different. You may have lumpy breasts, one breast larger than the other, breasts that are different shapes, or one or both nipples that are pulled in (inverted).

There is no specific way to examine them but we recommend finding an occasion that is right for you e.g.: when applying shower gel in the shower or body cream. When applying these firmly press the breast tissue with the palm of your hand and feel around the full breast, up to the collarbone and up into and under the arm pit.

Some breasts can naturally be lumpy or get lumpy at certain times of the cycle. This is where knowing your breast is very important.  If you feel a lump it may be firm or soft, smooth or craggy, mobile or stuck, tender or non-tender.

Most breast changes are not likely to be breast cancer but if you find something different or of concern in your breast ensure you see one of our GP’s without delay.

To book an appointment to find out more or get a lump checked head to our website or call 1800 BEST GP.