Breast cancer update

October is Breast Cancer Action Month. Here’s what’s new in breast cancer research.

  • Breast cancer is the most common cancer among New Zealand women with more than 2600 new cases expected this year – along with around 20 diagnoses in men. 
  • More than 600 women will die from the disease this year – making it the leading cause of cancer-related death in females.
  • One in nine women will be diagnosed with breast cancer during their lifetime.
  • 90-95 per cent of women who are diagnosed with breast cancer have no family history of the disease.
  • Getting older is the most common risk factor: over 75 per cent of new cases are among women 50 years and over.

Women of all ages, especially those over the age of 40 years, need to be ‘breast aware’. This means:

  • Know what is normal for you
  • Know what changes to look and feel for
  • Report changes without delay to your family doctor
  • Attend a mammography screening (if appropriate for your age)
  • A new lump or thickening
  • A change in the breast shape or size
  • Pain in the breast that is unusual
  • Puckering or dimpling of the skin
  • Any change in one nipple, such as a turned-in (inverted) nipple, a discharge that occurs without squeezing or a rash or reddening of the skin that appears only on the breast

Early detection of breast cancer increases a woman’s chance of survival. Between 1995-2005 and the death rate decreased by nearly 24 per cent. Today, close to 85 per cent of New Zealand women diagnosed with breast cancer will survive five years or more.
New Zealand’s free, nationwide breast-screening programme, BreastScreen Aotearoa, checks women with no breast cancer signs/symptoms – ‘well’ women – for early breast cancer between 45-69 years of age with a screening mammogram every two years.

  • Moderate to heavy alcohol intake (more than one glass a day)
  • Overweight and obesity in postmenopausal women
  • Lack of physical activity

A great deal of research is going on all over the world on breast cancer. Here are some highlights.

An article to be published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests vitamin D supplements may reduce the risk for breast cancer in women with low vitamin D levels, and could slow the growth and progression of breast cancer. Experts say more research is necessary on this.

A Breast Cancer Preventative Vaccine Trial took place in the US, with findings published in the journal Nature Medicine. Genetically cancer-prone mice were vaccinated with an antigen which targets a protein found in most breast cancer cells. None of the mice vaccinated with the antigen developed breast cancer, while all the other mice did. Large scale clinical trials are required to determine if the vaccine is safe and effective in humans. This could lead to a human breast cancer preventative vaccine in the future.

An April 2010 article in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reports that women taking multivitamins had a 19 per cent increased risk of breast cancer compared to women who did not take multivitamins. Swedish researchers concluded use of multivitamins may increase breast cancer risk. However, other similar studies on multivitamin use have found a decrease in breast cancer risk. Overall, studies on multivitamin use and breast cancer risk are inconclusive.

For more information on breast cancer action month, go to

First published: Oct 2010

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