What is breast cancer?

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in the UK.

Breast cancer starts when cells in the breast begin to divide and grow in an abnormal way. It’s caused by a combination of lots of different factors, many of which are beyond our control.

Breast cancer is not one single disease – there are several types of breast cancer. It can be diagnosed at different stages and can grow at different rates. This means that people can have different treatments, depending on what will work best for them.

Who gets breast cancer?

Around 60,000 people are diagnosed with breast cancer each year in the UK.

The lifetime risk of getting breast cancer for a woman is 1 in 8.

This is the same as saying around 13% of women get breast cancer in their lifetime.

It also means that 7 out of 8 women – or around 87% of women – won’t get breast cancer.

Men get breast cancer too, although it’s very rare. Of the 60,000 people diagnosed each year with breast cancer, about 340 are men.

Find out about the symptoms of breast cancer.

More common in older people

Most breast cancers (8 out of 10) occur in women who are over the age of 50.

Nearly half of all cases are diagnosed in people in the 50–69 age group.

Most men who get breast cancer are over 60.

Find out more about the risk factors for breast cancer.

Most cases don’t run in the family

Most cases of breast cancer happen by chance. Only around 5% of breast cancers are caused by inheriting an altered gene.

Because breast cancer is the most common cancer in the UK, it’s not unusual to have one or two people in an extended family who have had breast cancer. For most people, having a relative with breast cancer does not increase their risk of developing the disease.

If you’re worried about whether your family history of breast cancer might mean your own risk is increased, speak to your GP (local doctor). You may like to read our information on family history.

More people survive breast cancer than ever

Earlier detection, increased knowledge and understanding of the biology of breast cancer and better treatments mean that survival rates after a diagnosis of breast cancer are improving.

More than 80% of women survive breast cancer beyond five years. Around 78% of women survive beyond 10 years.

It’s thought that around 691,000 people are alive in the UK who have had a diagnosis of breast cancer.

However, around 11,600 people die from breast cancer every year.

Breast screening

Breast screening is an x-ray examination of the breasts, known as a mammogram. It may help detect breast cancer before there are any signs or symptoms. The sooner breast cancer is diagnosed the more effective treatment may be.

Because breast cancer is more common in women who are over the age of 50, women aged 50 to 70 are invited for routine breast screening every three years.

The age range for the screening programme is being extended to 47-73 as part of a trial which will include all women by the end of 2016 in England.

Going for breast screening will not prevent breast cancer from developing, but it may find a breast cancer sooner – before it can be felt.

Find out more about breast screening, including the possible benefits and risks.

Breast cancer affects women regardless of breast size

Breast cancer can affect women with small breasts, medium breasts, large breasts – any size breasts.

Read our frequently asked questions about breast health and breast cancer.

A lump isn’t always cancer

Several benign (not cancer) breast conditions may cause a lump in the breast.

Also many women will experience lumpy breasts just before their period. This is a normal response to changing hormones and often the lump or lumpiness disappears after the period.

However, if this doesn’t go away, it’s important to get it checked out by a doctor. Any new lump or other breast change should always be assessed by a doctor, regardless of your age or whether you are still having periods or not.

Find out more about being breast aware.

Last reviewed: January 2016
Next planned review begins 2018

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