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Identifying the early signs of breast cancer

There are over 15 000 diagnoses of breast cancer in Australia each year. It is the second most common type of cancer in Australia and of those affected 99% are women. Early detection remains to be the key focus in fighting breast cancer in Australia.

According to Cancer Australia, breast cancer occurs when abnormal cells in the breast grow in an uncontrolled way. This could be for many reasons and usually starts from a single abnormal cell. Medical professionals have identified certain factors that increase the risk of developing the cancer.

What are breast cancer risk factors?

  • Being a woman
  • Having a history of breast cancer in the family
  • Being over 50 years old
  • Certain lifestyle choices (being overweight, drinking or smoking)
  • Estrogen exposure
It is important to note that there is no way of knowing which risk factor/s were the cause of someone developing breast cancer. Although surprisingly, genetics and family history only contributes to 5-10% of breast cancers. Those that have one or more risk factors will not necessarily develop the cancer.

Breast cancer usually starts one of two ways in the body. The first is developed through the inner lining of milk ducts and is called ductal carcinoma. The other area breast cancer can develop is in the lobules, this is called lobular carcinoma. Although both types of breast cancers have the same symptoms.

Symptoms of breast cancer

  • Lump in the breast
  • Dimpled skin
  • Change in colour or texture of the nipple
  • General pain or uncomfortableness in the breast area and underarms
  • Nipple discharge
These symptoms are not exclusive to cancer and can occur in the body for other reasons such as cysts, hormone imbalance or a drastic lifestyle change. It is important to get anything unusual checked by a doctor.

Diagnosing breast cancer

Women can be diagnosed after a regular breast screening or after seeing their doctor once noticing one of the symptoms above. Several tests can be conducted on a woman to confirm whether what is being experienced is a cancer;

Physical examination occurs with your doctor, who will examine your breasts and take into consideration you and your family’s medical history.

A mammogram is an x-ray of the breast tissue at a low-dose of radiation. This method can find changes that are too small to be detected during the physical examination.

An ultrasound is a scan that relies on soundwaves to echo through the body and bounce off something dense, like an organ or tumour. The soundwaves create a picture of you on a computer to be looked at closely.

Breast MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) is a test that can create a detailed image of the side of the breasts. The test is used on high-risk women for breast cancer that may have the early stages of the cancer. Breast MRI screening is not standard practice for all breast cancer testing as it sometimes misses cancers that a mammography can easily detect. It is used in conjunction with the above screening methods.

Biopsy is the most invasive method of testing for breast cancer. The procedure includes removing a small piece of tissue or cells that will be examined by a pathologist. Depending on the type of biopsy the patient may be administered local anaesthetic and experience some pain and bruising.

Breast cancer misdiagnosis, late diagnosis and medical malpractice

If a breast cancer was not detected in a timely manner by a doctor or specialist a patient can bring a claim forward. It will need to be proven that the doctor or specialist did not adequately screen for breast cancer, did not refer to the patient to get the relevant tests or did not adequately recognise the signs in an acceptable time frame for the patient to act.

Recent case

In a recent case by Shine Lawyers, a mother of two failed to be diagnosed by a GP and a Radiologist in her initial screen after finding a suspicious lump. Seven months later, the lump continued to grow and become more uncomfortable, which point the patient visited another GP, and was diagnosed with breast cancer. The delay in the diagnosis resulted in a significant decrease in her survival rate. The Shine Lawyers medical negligence team were able to secure a large settlement for the survivor.

If you or a loved one believe you have been misdiagnosed or were failed to be diagnosed, we may be able to help.

For support and additional information on dealing with breast cancer, visit the Breast Cancer Network Australia website -

Written by Shine Lawyers. Last modified: June 4, 2016.

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