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Breast cancer in older women

Breast cancer is one of the most common types of cancer and it affects just about everyone, whether you have received a diagnosis yourself, or know a family member or friend that has. It also disproportionally affects older women with 60 being the average age of diagnosis.

Last updated: October 27th 2022
Breast cancer is one of the most common types of cancer, affecting many older women with 60 the average age of diagnosis. [Source: iStock]

Breast cancer is one of the most common types of cancer, affecting many older women with 60 the average age of diagnosis. [Source: iStock]

Key points:

  • The average age of breast cancer diagnosis is 60, with three-quarters of new cases in women over 50
  • It’s recommended that women between 50 and 74 receive a mammogram every two years for early detection
  • Breast cancer treatment success rates have improved over the years, with an 87 percent survival rate of at least 10 years

According to Breast Cancer Network Australia (BCNA) almost 21,000 Australians are diagnosed with breast cancer annually. That’s an average of 57 people every day.

It’s crucial to understand your risk factors, the warning signs, and the options available following your diagnosis.

Breast cancer risk factors

Breast cancer poses one of the greatest health risks for women as it’s estimated to account for almost one-third of the diagnosed cancers in Australian women each year.

Your sex is an uncontrollable risk factor, as a woman has a one in seven chance of being diagnosed with breast cancer during their lifetime, compared to one in 555 chance for men.

Those risks increase with age as approximately 80 percent of new cases are in women over 50, often after menopause. The average age of diagnosis is about 60. You can learn more about managing menopause in our article, ‘Managing and living with menopause‘.

It’s expected that case numbers will continue to increase annually as Australia’s population shifts demographically over the next 20 years.

Currently, there are 4.31 million over-65s, with the figure projected to be 6.66 million by 2041. That includes 1.28 million people aged 85 and older, more than double what it is currently.

There are positive signs for older women despite increased rates of diagnosis. The mortality rate of breast cancer is decreasing with early diagnosis, which is one reason why the survival rate for at least 10 years is 86.7 percent.

The risk of developing breast cancer may be hereditary, as is the case for between 5-10 percent of breast cancers. Although the presence of specific mutated genes is low in the general population, it increases the risk of cancer for women where it is present.

Lifestyle factors such as weight, high alcohol consumption and smoking have been linked to the presence of breast cancer.

Your weight can contribute to its development as fatty tissue is the body’s main source of oestrogen and around 70 percent of breast cancers develop due to cells binding with oestrogen which then promotes their growth and spread.

Maintaining an active and healthy lifestyle is therefore recommended to reduce your risk of developing cancer as you age.

Monitoring and detecting breast cancer

There are various breast cancers, including non-invasive and invasive types, as well as some rarer forms of cancer. With each type, there may be more symptoms or warning signs than just a lump.

As an example, non-invasive breast cancers, like ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), involve lumps forming in the milk ducts of a breast, but rarely spread into surrounding breast tissue.

But invasive ductal carcinoma (IDC), the most common type of breast cancer, starts in the milk ducts and breaks through to spread into surrounding tissue, lymph nodes, and even throughout the body.

That’s why understanding and identifying changes in your body early on may help you catch cancer before it spreads.

Self-examinations are a perfect way to remain familiar with your body, particularly as it will change as you age, for example, some parts of your body will sag more and your weight may fluctuate.

BCNA has helpful tips for breast awareness and self-examination, including the importance of checking your breast, armpits and up to your collarbone. There are types of cancer that will not just be localised to breast tissue itself and can spread to surrounding lymph nodes.

The Cancer Council Australia also provides a range of breast cancer resources.

If you’re not as comfortable with self-examination or would like a professional approach, women aged between 50 and 74 are eligible for a free mammogram every two years by BreastScreen Australia.

BreastScreen Australia is a joint Australian, State and Territory Government Program providing free mammograms to every woman aged 40 and over. You don’t have to wait for a lump to appear, as it’s an early intervention that can find breast cancers before they can be visibly seen or felt.

Women aged over 75 should still book in for a mammogram, despite the belief you may not be as likely to develop breast cancer, with early awareness crucial for high treatment success rates.

You can book an appointment online at BreastScreen Australia or call on 13 20 50.

Treatment, management and life after cancer

Your experience with breast cancer will depend on several unique factors, such as the type of cancer, its severity, your treatment options, or other existing health concerns.

Chemotherapy, the most common treatment for cancer, may be more harmful to older patients who could have their recovery impacted due to the overall impact of radiation on the body.

A mastectomy is a surgical option involving the total removal of one, or both (double mastectomy), breasts. It is typically required when the size of a tumour is large in comparison to the breast, there is more than one growth in the breast, or cancer has returned after previous treatment.

Some women with a hereditary predisposition may also choose to have a mastectomy as a preventative measure.

These factors will be considered by your doctor to provide the best possible outcome.

If the cost of treatment for breast cancer is a concern, Cancer Council Australia has several resources available to assist with your management of expenses. They outline the potential costs, gap payments, budgeting and where to find financial support.

Following your treatment, there will be regular follow-up appointments to monitor the cancer and to assist with your recovery. This includes support for physical, physiological and emotional concerns.

Some people check in with their General Practitioner (GP) every three or six months following breast cancer treatment, while others might only need a yearly follow-up. It all depends on your individual circumstances and, of course, the pre-existing routine you may have with your GP.

Concerns over breast cancer recurrence are also quite normal. Many women worry about the cancer returning, even after successful treatment. Ongoing treatment options are available to manage and prevent its return, and you can speak to your GP or doctor about them.

If you have any questions or concerns about breast cancer, from diagnosis to treatment and management, the BCNA helpline provides support over the phone on 1800 500 258.

Have you received a breast cancer diagnosis as an older woman? Tell us about your experience in the comments below.

Related content

Health concerns for women over 60 years old
Keeping healthy physically in your old age
Top health concerns for older people
Managing and living with menopause


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