BREAST cancer is the leading cause of death in women under the age of 50 in the UK.
But a combination of better treatment and earlier detection through screening is helping to give women a better chance at survival.
In fact almost nine in 10 women will beat the disease – and survival rates have doubled in the last 40 years.
However, when breast cancer is not picked up early and given the chance to spread – known as advanced – it becomes incurable.
It can most commonly spread to the bones, brain, lungs or liver.
There are an estimated 35,000 people living with advanced, or secondary, breast cancer in the UK.
In around five per cent of women, breast cancer has already advanced by the time it is diagnosed, according to Breast Cancer Now.
With cancer referrals down 60 per cent in England during the coronavirus lockdown, there are fears of a surge in "unnecessary deaths".
It comes as Girls Aloud star Sarah Harding revealed she is battling advanced breast cancer and currently undergoing chemotherapy.
The 38-year-old told fans she had been diagnosed with breast cancer earlier this year, but found out a couple of weeks ago that it had advanced.
It's unclear where in her body the cancer has spread but she said she is currently undergoing chemotherapy.
The signs of advanced breast cancer
The best way to beat the disease is to know the early warning signs so that it can be detected and treated sooner.
There are four general symptoms to look our for, according to Cancer Research UK.
- Feeling tired
- Low energy levels
- Feeling under the weather
- Having less appetite
Not all of these symptoms could be a sign of advanced breast cancer and they may be caused by other conditions.
Symptoms can also vary depending on which part of the body the cancer has spread to.
But if you're worried about a symptom or if it continues for more than a few days, then it's best to tell your doctor or specialist nurse.
What are the signs of breast cancer?
While breast is more common in older women, it does affect the younger generation and men too – with around 20 per cent of cases occurring in females under 50 and 350 male cases diagnosed in the UK annually.
While 90 per cent of such lumps are not cancerous, it is vital to get them checked by your GP at the earliest opportunity – detecting the disease early can mean treatment is more effective.
It is therefore vitally important to be "breast aware" – know what feels normal for you, and therefore what changes to look out for.
The most common signs to know include:
- A lump or swelling in the breast, upper chest or armpit. You might feel the lump, but not see it.
- Changes in the size or shape of the breast
- A change in skin texture i.e. puckering or dimpling of the skin
- A change in the colour of the breast – the breast may look red or inflamed
- Rash, crusting or changes to the nipple
- Any unusual discharge from either nipple
What are the stages for breast cancer?
There are four stages for breast cancer, with one being the earliest and four meaning it has spread to other parts of the body.
Here are the different stages, as shared by Cancer Research UK.
There are two parts to stage one:
- 1A – This means the tumour is 2cm or less and hasn't spread outside the breast
- 1B – Small areas of breast cancer cells are found in the lymph nodes close to the breast. There is also no tumour in the breast or the tumour is 2cm or less.
There are two parts to stage two, and this stage means the cancer is in the breast or nearby lymph nodes:
- 2A – There is no tumour or a tumour 2 centimetres (cm) or smaller in the breast and cancer cells are found in 1 to 3 lymph nodes in the armpit or in the lymph nodes near the breastbone. It can also mean the tumour is larger than 2cm but not larger than 5cm and there is no cancer in the lymph nodes.
- 2B – The tumour is larger than 2cm but not larger than 5cm and there are small areas of cancer cells in the lymph nodes. Or it can mean the tumour is larger than 2cm but not larger than 5cm and the cancer has spread to 1 to 3 lymph nodes in the armpit or to the lymph nodes near the breastbone or the tumour is larger than 5cm and hasn't spread to the lymph nodes.
There are three parts to stage three, and this stage means the cancer is in the breast or nearby lymph nodes:
- 3A – There is no tumour or the tumour may be any size and cancer is found in 4 to 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. It could also mean 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.
- 3B – The tumour has spread to the skin of the breast or the chest wall. The cancer may have spread to up to 9 lymph nodes in the armpit or to the lymph nodes near the breastbone.
- 3C – There are 10 or more lymph nodes in the armpit, lymph nodes above or below the collarbone or lymph nodes in the armpit and near the breastbone.
This means the cancer has spread to other parts of the body such as the bones, lungs, liver or brain.
It's known as advanced, secondary or metastatic cancer.
The most common places for breast cancer to spread to are the lymph nodes, bone, liver, lungs and brain.
Symptoms will depend on where in the body the cancer has spread to.
If you have symptoms that you are worried about, discuss them with your GP, cancer specialist or breast care nurse.
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