How common is breast cancer
Breast cancer is the most common form of cancer among women. Some 6,200 women in Switzerland develop breast cancer every year, and 1,400 of them die. Four out of five of these women are older than 50, while breast cancer is more seldom among younger women. A little-known fact: men can also develop breast cancer, and around 50 men are affected in Switzerland every year.
Factors increasing the risk of breast cancer
There are a number of risk factors for breast cancer among women. In addition to age, these include:
- If the mother, sister or daughter has had breast cancer.
- Five to ten per cent of women have a genetic predisposition for breast cancer.
- Radiation therapy in the chest area, for example to treat lymphoma.
- No pregnancy or late pregnancy, no breastfeeding.
- Early menstruation, late menopause.
- Several years of hormone therapy to treat menopausal symptoms, in particular with oestrogen and progesterone combination preparations.
- Contraceptive pill
- Overweight, in particular post-menopause.
- Lack of exercise
- Drinking too much alcohol and smoking.
- There are indications that breast cancer occurs more frequently in countries with a high-fat diet.
Symptoms that may indicate breast cancer
- Initially, painless lumps or hardening in the breast or armpit that went unnoticed during previous self-examinations.
- Changes in colour, form or size of the breast and/or the nipple, for example severe reddening or indented skin.
- Watery, bloody or purulent discharge from the nipple.
- Palpable lymph nodes in the armpit.
- Pain or tightness in the breast that doesn’t feel the same as during menstruation.
Why early detection is important
Early detection can't prevent breast cancer, but is recommended by the Cancer League for diagnosing breast cancer at an early stage before it has metastasised. This improves the success of treatment and the chances of recovery. In Switzerland, some 80% of breast cancer patients are still alive five years after their diagnosis.
The mammogram, i.e. an X-ray of the breast, is an established method for early detection which detects even very small tumours before they can be felt or cause symptoms. A mammogram is recommended if there is a higher risk of developing breast cancer based on family history or before starting hormone replacement therapy during menopause.
The pros and cons of a mammography screening
Some cantons offer mammography screening. As part of a quality-controlled programme, all women aged 50 and over are invited to have a voluntary mammogram every two years, even if they are free of symptoms and not genetically at risk. Mammography screenings are controversial, and women are advised to carefully consider the pros and cons.
The advantage is that breast cancer is detected early, which makes treatment easier and gentler. The breast can often be saved, and chemotherapy isn't always required.
The disadvantages include what is known as overdiagnosis. A mammogram also detects tumours that would most likely have remained harmless if left untreated. However, at the time of diagnosis it isn't possible to predict the development of a tumour and whether it will cause health problems at a later stage. As a result, treatment is usually recommended even though it might not strictly be necessary.
What you can do yourself
To detect changes in the breast it’s a good idea to examine yourself once a month. The University Hospital of Basel recommends:
- The best time for self-examination is around eight days after your period, when the breast is softer and changes are easier to feel. Post-menopausal women can carry out the examination on the same day every month.
- It’s best to stand in front of the mirror and check for changes before feeling the breasts with small, circular movements. Remember to examine the breasts, nipples and armpits.