Breast cancer

Breast cancer

Milk duct cross section
Approximately 20,000 Australians are diagnosed with breast cancer each year. Breast cancer is estimated to affect 1 in 15 people under the age of 85. Our researchers are discovering how and why breast cancers start. This is helping to advance better treatments for breast cancer.


Our breast cancer research

Our breast cancer research focuses on:

  • Revealing the link between breast stem cells, breast development and breast cancer.
  • Discovering how the female hormones oestrogen and progesterone are linked to increased breast cancer risk.
  • Testing the effectiveness of new anti-cancer medications in treating breast cancer, using patient samples and laboratory models.
  • Leading clinical trials aimed at improving treatments for breast cancer and breast cancer prevention.
  • Developing new ways to match breast cancer patients to the best treatment for their disease.

What is breast cancer?

Breast cancer arises from cells within the breast that accumulate changes to their DNA (‘genetic mutations’) that make them grow in an uncontrolled manner.

The structure of the breast is designed to produce and secrete milk from the nipple. Most breast cancers arise from cells in the breast ducts, which normally transport milk to the nipple. Some cancers develop from cells in the milk-producing lobules. It is rare for cancers to come from other structures in the breast such as fat or lymphatic vessels.

Breast cancers begin as a small, confined tumour, but can grow and spread throughout the breast. Early growths that are ‘pre-invasive’ as they have not left the ducts are termed DCIS (for ‘Ductal Carcinoma In Situ’). Invasive cancers are often described as ductal or lobular, based on their appearance down the microscope.

Some breast cancer cells may develop further changes that allow them to escape from the breast. They travel through lymphatic vessels to lymph nodes, or spreading through the blood to other organs, a process called ‘metastasis’.

Breast cancer risk factors

Most breast cancers arise ‘spontaneously’, with no identifiable cause. Around five per cent of Australian breast cancer cases are ‘hereditary’, meaning the patient carries an inherited breast cancer risk gene, such as BRCA1 or BRCA2. This puts them at elevated risk of breast and ovarian cancer.

Other factors that increase a person’s risk of developing breast cancer include:

  • Gender: females are at a much higher risk developing breast cancer, but breast cancer can occur in men
  • Older age: like many cancers, the risk of developing breast cancer increases with age - about 80% arise after age 50
  • Exposure of breast cells to female hormones
  • Excessive alcohol consumption
  • Obesity
  • Exposure to high doses of radiation

How is breast cancer treated?

Breast cancers that are confined to the breast, or have not spread beyond the lymph nodes can often be cured. Treatment depends on the precise tumour features and may include:

  • Surgery
  • Radiation therapy
  • Chemotherapy
  • Hormonal (endocrine) therapy, that blocks the action of oestrogen

Metastatic breast cancer, which has spread further in the body, is often treated with chemotherapy or hormonal therapy, again depending on the tumour and the patient.

For some types of breast cancer, treatments are designed to specifically target particular molecules that are promoting cancer growth. An example is therapy that targets HER2, a protein which is overproduced in about 15-20% of breast cancer. More detailed information about breast cancer treatment can be found at the Cancer Australia website.

WEHI researchers are not able to provide specific medical advice specific to individuals. If you have breast cancer and wish to find out more information about clinical trials, please visit Cancer Australia or Breast Cancer Network Australia clinical trials, or consult your medical specialist.


Professor Melissa Davis

Portrait photo of Professor Melissa Davis
Joint Division Head

Professor Peter Gibbs

Peter Gibbs in his office
Joint Division Head

Professor Geoff Lindeman

Professor Geoffrey Lindeman in the lab
Joint Division Head

Dr Sheau Wen Lok

Dr Sheau Wen Lok at the Institute
Sheau Wen
Clinical Research Fellow

Professor Gordon Smyth

Professor Gordon Smyth writing on a whiteboard
Joint Division Head

Professor Jane Visvader

Jane Visvader
Joint Division Head
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Professor Geoff Lindeman being interviewed

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