Breast cancer in women

Breast cancer is the second most common type of cancer among women in Northern Ireland. There's a good chance of recovery if it's detected in its early stages. It’s important women check their breasts regularly for any changes and always get any changes examined by their GP.

About breast cancer

About one in eight women are diagnosed with breast cancer during their lifetime. Breast cancer accounts for 30 per cent of all cancer in women in Northern Ireland.

The Northern Ireland Breast Screening Programme provides free breast screening every three years for all women aged between 50 and 70, see screening section below.

Men can also be diagnosed with breast cancer. The rate of breast cancer in men is 100 times less than in women in Northern Ireland.

Symptoms of breast cancer

Breast cancer can have a number of symptoms. But the first noticeable symptom is usually a lump or area of thickened breast tissue.

Most breast lumps aren't cancerous, but it's always best to have them checked by your doctor.

You should also see your GP if you notice any of the following:

  • a change in the size or shape of one or both breasts
  • discharge from either of your nipples, which may be streaked with blood
  • a lump or swelling in either of your armpits
  • dimpling on the skin of your breasts
  • a rash on or around your nipple
  • a change in the appearance of your nipple, such as becoming sunken into your breast

Breast pain isn't usually a symptom of breast cancer.

When you see your GP if you have any concerns about your breasts, they will examine your breasts.

Your GP may refer you to a specialist breast cancer clinic for further tests. This might include breast screening (mammography) or a biopsy.

Causes of breast cancer

The exact causes of breast cancer aren't fully understood. There are certain factors known to increase the risk of breast cancer.

These include:

  • age – the risk increases as you get older – in Northern Ireland 81 per cent of cases occur in women over the age of 50 years - the rate is greatest among women aged 80-89
  • a family history of breast cancer
  • a previous diagnosis of breast cancer
  • a previous benign breast lump
  • being tall, overweight or obese
  • excessive use of alcohol

Breast cancer screening

The Northern Ireland Breast Screening Programme provides free breast screening every three years for all women aged between 50 and 70.

Women over 70 are not automatically invited for screening but are encouraged to make their own appointment by contacting their local screening centre.

Screening can detect breast cancer at a very early stage. If you are invited for screening, you should consider attending.

The sooner cancer is detected, the better the chances of successful treatment.

Types of breast cancer

There are several different types of breast cancer, which can develop in different parts of the breast.

It's possible for breast cancer to spread to other parts of the body, usually through the bloodstream or the lymphatic system. Swollen lymph nodes in the armpits can cause a lump or swelling there.

If this happens, it causes secondary, or metastatic, breast cancer.

Treating breast cancer

If cancer is detected at an early stage, it can be treated before it spreads to nearby parts of the body.

Breast cancer is treated using a combination of:

Surgery is usually the first type of treatment you'll have, followed by chemotherapy or radiotherapy or, in some cases, hormone or biological treatments.

The type of surgery and the treatment you have afterwards will depend on the type of breast cancer you have. Your doctor will discuss the best treatment plan with you.

Preventing breast cancer

As the causes of breast cancer aren't fully understood, it's not  currently possible to know if it can be prevented.

If you're at increased risk of developing the condition, some treatments are available to reduce the risk.

Studies have looked at the link between breast cancer and diet. Although there are no definite conclusions, there are benefits for women who:

It's been suggested that regular exercise can reduce your risk of breast cancer by as much as a third. Regular exercise and a healthy lifestyle can also improve the outlook for people affected by breast cancer.

If you've been through the menopause, it's particularly important that you're not overweight or obese.

This is because being overweight or obese causes more oestrogen to be produced, which can increase the risk of breast cancer.

Living with breast cancer

Being diagnosed with breast cancer can affect daily life in many ways, depending on what stage it's at and the treatment you're having.

How women cope with their diagnosis and treatment varies from person to person. There are several forms of support available, if you need it, see more useful links section.

For example:

  • your family and friends can be a powerful support system
  • you can talk with other people in the same situation
  • find out as much as possible about your condition
  • don't try to do too much or overexert yourself
  • make time for yourself


The information on this page has been adapted from original content from the NHS website.

For further information see terms and conditions.

This page was published April 2018

This page is due for review January 2020

Health conditions A to Z

Search by health condition or symptoms

Or find conditions beginning with …

Share this page


Your comments are anonymous and can’t be responded to - if you would like a reply, use the feedback form.

Your comments
Plain text only, 750 characters maximum. Don't include personal or financial information.