Breast Cancer Awareness Month

More than Just a Ribbon

October 30, 2020 / educational / recommended

Breast cancer is the most common cancer amongst Canadian women and is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths. Luckily, more and more individuals are surviving their diagnosis thanks to advances in medical research and overall awareness. Around 9 out of 10 women affected by breast cancer will survive at least 5 years past their initial diagnosis, but the work doesn’t end there! This Breast Cancer Awareness Month is a great time to continue spreading knowledge and understanding about this disease to ensure that the number of survivors can continue to flourish. Below you will find information on the different types of breast cancer, symptoms to be on the lookout for, and how to keep up to date with your own health!


What is Breast Cancer?

Breast cancer occurs when cells in the breast reproduce at an abnormally rapid rate which can lead to the creation of a group of cells called a cancerous (or malignant) tumor. The tumor will often increase in size as these cancerous cells continue to multiply, spreading into and destroying the surrounding tissues in the breast. As the cancer advances, it can continue to spread to other regions of the body becoming harder to treat. Contrary to popular belief, men can also develop breast cancer as they do have breast tissue just like women even though male breasts do not develop the same way. However, breast cancer in men accounts for less than 1% of all cases whereas around 1 in 8 women are expected to develop breast cancer during their lifetime and 1 in 33 women will die from it.


The Different Types of Breast Cancer

Our bodies are ever changing, which means that it is not uncommon for our cells to behave differently than before. Abnormal changes in breast cells can lead to non-cancerous conditions such as hyperplasia, benign cysts, and non-cancerous tumors, but these changes can also lead to different types of breast cancer. These cancers can either be in situ – meaning that the cancer stays in its original location in the body – or invasive – meaning that the cancer has spread from where it started into the healthy tissues that surround it. 

In Situ:


  • Ductal Carcinoma in Situ (DCIS) (about 83% of all breast cancers) – Ductal carcinoma is a form of breast cancer that develops in the cells that line the ducts of the breast. These are the tubes in which milk is carried from the glands to the nipple during lactation in pregnant women. This form of cancer can potentially become invasive, spreading into other tissues of the body.


  • Lobular Carcinoma in Situ (LCIS) – Lobular Carcinoma is a form of breast cancer that develops within the lobules in the breast which are the glands that produce milk. Although it is uncommon, women with LCIS have an increased risk of developing an invasive breast cancer later in life (see below) 


  • Invasive Ductal Carcinoma – This cancer begins as DCIS and becomes invasive, spreading to the surrounding healthy breast tissues.

  • Inflammatory Breast Cancer – Inflammatory breast cancer is when cancer cells begin to block the lymph vessels in the skin of the breast causing it to become red and swollen. This cancer, although rare, tends to grow and spread very quickly and is often only diagnosed once it has already spread to the lymph nodes or other organs.

  • Triple Negative Breast Cancer (about 10-20% of all breast cancers) – This cancer that tests negative for estrogen receptors, progesterone receptors, and excess HER2 protein. This means the growth of the cancer is not fueled by the hormones estrogen and progesterone, or by the HER2 protein.

Paget’s Disease:

  • Paget’s Disease of the Breast – Paget’s disease of the breast is a less common form of breast cancer that can be identified through change in the nipple and areola typically on a single breast. Most individuals with Paget’s disease of the breast will also be affected by DCIS.

Breast cancer is referred to as being either local, regional or distant; terms that describe how advanced an individual’s cancer is. Local means that the cancer is isolated within the breast, regional means that the lymph nodes have been affected, and distant is when the cancer has spread to other areas of the body. 


What to Look For

In the early stages of breast cancer, chances are that there may be no apparent symptoms at all. These warning signs tend to appear once a tumor has grown large enough to feel or if the cancer has spread to other areas of the body. The most common symptom of breast cancer is a firm lump that feels distinctly different to the rest of the breast, it does not typically cause any pain. Other cancers may present with a thickening or hardening of the tissues inside the breast, instead of a lump.

Other early symptoms of these two cancers include:

  • A lump in the armpit region (axilla)

  • A change in the shape and size of the breast

  • A change to the nipple shape or suddenly inverted nipple (where the nipple points inwards rather than out) 

  • Discharge that comes out of the nipple without squeezing it or that contains blood

More noticeable symptoms will appear when the cancer grows in size (local) or spreads to other parts of the body (metastasis). These symptoms include: 

  • Weight loss

  • Nausea 

  • Loss of appetite

  • Cough

  • Headache

  • Bone pain

  • Double vision

  • Shortness of breath

  • Jaundice

  • Muscle weakness

For inflammatory breast cancer, symptoms appear soon after the cancer develops and will continue to develop rapidly. These symptoms may include:

  • Physical changes to the breast (i.e. swollen, warm to the touch, increase in size, thickened skin or breast tissue, dimpled or pitted skin that resembles an orange peel)

  • A change to the nipple shape or suddenly inverted nipple 

  • Itching or burning sensations

  • Tenderness or pain in the breast

  • A lump in the armpit area (axilla) or nearing the collar bone

 For Paget’s disease of the breast, the individual will notice changes primarily to their nipple and areola such as: 

  • Crusting or flaking

  • Redness of the nipple or areola

  • Bleeding or discharge

  • Burning or itching

  • Suddenly flat or inverted nipple 

  • A lump in the breast, most often close to or under the nipple

The appearance of symptoms can be different from one person to another, so it is important to know which signs to recognize and to trust your instinct if you consider something to be unusual.


Breast Cancer Prevention Begins with Screening

Screening for breast cancer is when a person gets their breasts checked without prior indications of any abnormalities. This is one of the best ways to facilitate breast cancer diagnosis and treatment. Many cancers show no signs or symptoms in their early stages and can therefore be overlooked until further spreading has already occurred. Treatment and survival rates are far more promising when a cancer is detected in its earliest stages which is why screening is so essential to maintaining our health. The most reliable way to be screened for breast cancer is through a mammogram – a low-dose-x-ray of the breast to locate any signs of cancer. To keep up to date with your breast cancer screening, we recommend that:  

  • Average Risk Women (99% of women) aged 50 to 69 should have a mammogram done at least every 2 to 3 years.

  • High Risk Women (1% of women) aged 30 to 74 should have a mammogram and MRI or Ultrasound.

You are considered High Risk if:

  • You or a close relative have a Gene Mutation (ie. BRCA),

  • Your mother, sister or daughter has had breast cancer,

  • You have a personal risk of breast cancer or ovarian cancer,

If you fit into the High Risk group, please speak to your Doctor for your screening recommendations.


More than Just a Pink Ribbon

Breast Cancer Awareness Month is a profoundly meaningful month for millions of people worldwide and we would like you to take this moment to remember that the famous pink ribbon is symbolic of far more than just another awareness month. This month is for the lives of the many mothers, daughters, sisters and family members of those affected by this difficult diagnosis. It is a time to commemorate those who have lost their battle, to continue to fight alongside those who are still fighting theirs and to improve the lives of the future generations of women ahead of us. Remember to speak to your friends and family members about breast cancer and to remind them about routine screenings. The earlier a cancer is detected, the easier it is to overcome. 

If you have any doubts about your health or suspect that you have been experiencing any of the abnormalities listed above, do not hesitate to reach out to your primary healthcare providers to ask about getting screened for breast cancer.