Breast cancer is a malignant disease of breast tissue. It is a reasonably common disease; 1 in 10 women in New Zealand will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime. It is the most common cancer found in women over the age of 45. The good news is that the majority of women survive breast cancer, if it is detected early, and effectively treated.
In most cases the cancer starts in the milk ducts of the breast. As it grows, cancer cells can break off and spread to other parts of the body, such as the lymph nodes, the bones and lungs. Initial signs of breast cancer may include a small painless lump, thick or dimpled skin, or nipple retraction.
Depending on its stage at diagnosis, breast cancer is treated with surgery to remove the primary cancer, then radiotherapy and/ or chemotherapy, hormonal or biological treatments. Chemotherapy is drug treatment that kills cancer cells by inhibiting key steps in their growth.
Because it targets cells that are growing and dividing, chemotherapy can also harm normal cells in the body and cause a range of side effects, such as fatigue, nausea and vomiting, mouth ulcers, constipation, diarrhoea, hair loss and bone marrow suppression which can lead to anaemia, increased risk of infection and clotting problems.