Health Check

Breast cancer: risks, symptoms, diagnosis and treatment

Learn more about breast cancer

Written by Medibank
Some people may have no symptoms of breast cancer, which is why screening and physical examinations are important.

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women in Australia. In fact, the risk of a woman being diagnosed with breast cancer by 85 year old is 1 in 81. Although it's far less common in men, they can also be diagnosed with breast cancer.

Who is most at risk of breast cancer?

The main risk factors associated with breast cancer are the ones you can’t change2. These include:

  • Being a woman
  • Getting older. Although breast cancer occurs in younger women, the majority of breast cancers occur after menopause.
  • Having a strong family history of breast cancer. 90-95% of all breast cancers have nothing to do with family history. But having one or more first-degree relatives or second-degree relatives on the same side of the family with breast cancer does increase your risk.
  • Inheritance of mutations in the genes BRCA2, BRCA1 and CHEK2. The BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations are two mutations known to be associated with hereditary breast cancer. Women who carry these mutations can also be at increased risk of developing ovarian cancer.

There are also some known risk factors that you can change, these include being overweight or obese, drinking too much alcohol and smoking.

What are the symptoms of breast cancer?

Some people may have no symptoms of breast cancer, which is why screening and physical examinations are important. According to the Cancer Council Australia, if you do have symptoms, these may include:

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

If you have any questions or concerns about any symptoms you may have, talk to your GP.

How can you screen for breast cancer?

Breast cancer is the second largest cause of cancer death in Australian women. Early detection and appropriate treatment can significantly improve breast cancer survival3.

Mammography is the recommended screening tool for the early detection of breast cancer.

  • Women aged between 50 and 74 are invited to access free screening mammograms every two years via the government’s BreastScreen Australia Program.
  • Women aged 40-49 and 75 and over can also get free mammograms, but won’t receive an invitation letter.

It’s also a good idea for women of all ages to become familiar with the normal look and feel of your breasts and to check your breasts for any changes. Most breast changes are not likely to be breast cancer. However, if you find a change in your breast that’s unusual for you, you should check in with your GP.

Diagnosing breast cancer

Tests that are sometimes used to diagnose breast cancer include:

  • Mammogram: A mammogram is an x-ray that can find changes that are too small to be felt during physical examination.
  • Biopsy: A doctor removes some of the breast tissue for examination under a microscope.
  • Other scans: If cancer is detected in your breast, you may have other scans to see if the cancer has spread to other parts of your body, such as a CT scan or MRI scan.

Treatment for breast cancer

The type of treatment depends on the size of the cancer and whether it has spread to the draining lymph nodes under the arm. Treatment options might include:

  • Surgery. For localised breast cancer, the most extensive surgical option is to remove the breast and lymph nodes under the arm. When part of the breast is removed it is referred to as breast conserving surgery. When the whole breast is removed it is called a mastectomy.
  • Cancer therapies. For tumours that may be bigger, more aggressive, or have spread to the lymph nodes – further treatment can be given after surgery. This can include hormone therapy for women whose tumours have hormone receptors on their surfaces, and chemotherapy and targeted therapies. Some patients will have chemotherapy and radiotherapy initially to see if it will shrink the cancer to make it operable.
  • Palliative care. In some cases, your doctor may talk to you about palliative care. Palliative care aims to improve your quality of life by alleviating symptoms of cancer. As well as slowing the spread of breast cancer, palliative treatment can relieve pain and help manage other symptoms. Treatment may include radiotherapy, chemotherapy or other drug therapies.

Do you have more questions?

If you have been diagnosed with cancer and have questions about your diagnoses or treatment plan, talk to your health care team and ask them to explain anything you don’t understand.

Medibank members with hospital cover can also call a nurse with any health question, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. To speak to a Medibank Nurse call 1800 644 325.

1 Cancer Council Australia (

2 Breast cancer network Australia (

3 Cancer Council Australia (

Written by Medibank

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