Breast Cancer Facts
According to the American Cancer Society, more than 200,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer each year, making it one of the leading causes of cancer-related deaths in American women – second only to lung cancer. And with more than 1 in 5 women succumbing to the disease, it’s no surprise that every year more and more breast cancer awareness campaigns are circulating around the globe. Fortunately, thanks to increasing funding in breast cancer research, there are now more (and less invasive) treatment options available than ever.
What is Breast Cancer?
As with other types of cancer, breast cancer begins when cells in the body grow and divide at a very fast rate, forming a tumor. If the tumor grows out of normal cells, it will be benign, meaning that it is not cancerous. However, if the cells forming the tumor are abnormal, the tumor will then be malignant (cancerous).
Breast Cancer Types
However, not all breast cancers are the same. It depends on which cells from the breast turn into cancer. The two main breast cancer types:
- Ductal carcinoma: This is the most common type of breast cancer and it begins in the cells found in the lining of the milk ducts (also known as the breast ducts). Within this category however, there are further divisions: ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), in which the cells have not spread beyond the lining of the milk ducts; and invasive ductal carcinoma, in which the cells have spread beyond the lining to other tissues within the breast or to tissues in other parts of the body
- Lobular carcinoma: This type of breast cancer occurs in the glands of the breast that make milk, which are known as lobes (lobules). Within this category there are similar divisions: lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS), in which the cancerous cells have no spread past the lobes (this is most common); and invasive lobular carcinoma, in which the cancer has spread into other tissues within the breast or to tissues in other parts of the body.
Breast Cancer Causes and Risk Factors
To date there is no known cause of breast cancer. There are, however, several known risk factors. Breast cancer risk factors include:
- Age: Risk for breast cancer increases with age. More than 3 out of every 4 breast cancer patients are over the age of 50, and almost half are over 65. In fact, women over the age of 50 are two times more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer than women only 10 years younger, especially after menopause. Breast cancer in young women is very rare – only about 1 in every 2500 women develop breast cancer by age 30.
- Family History: Having a mother, sister or daughter who was diagnosed with breast cancer also puts you at an increased risk for the disease. In fact, having one of these blood relations diagnosed with breast cancer nearly doubles your risk for developing breast cancer; having two or more increases your risk 5-fold. The risk is further increased if that relative had not yet experienced menopause and had the cancer in both breasts. Having distant relatives, however, such as aunts, grandmothers and cousins who have breast cancer also put you at risk for the disease, as does having a family history of other types of cancers, particularly cancer of the ovaries, cervix, uterus or colon.
- Genetics: Between 5% to 10% of breast cancers are inherited. This is caused by defective "breast cancer genes", called BRCAS or BRCA2. However, most genetic mutations develop over a lifetime for a variety of possible reasons, most of which are unknown.
- Previous Abnormal Breast Biopsy: Women who have had breast biopsies that have shown abnormal results have are at increased risk. Those whose results indicated hyperplasia are 4 to 5 times more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer, while those whose results revealed fibroadenomas, hyperplasia without atypia, sclerosing adenosis or solitary papilloma are only at a slightly increased risk.
- Giving Birth: Women who have not given birth to children or who gave birth after age 30 are at a higher risk.
- Lifestyle: Besides putting you at risk for developing the number one killer in America—heart disease—being overweight also puts you at increased risk for breast cancer, especially after menopause. In addition, consumption of alcohol may put you at a higher risk. In fact, compared with nondrinkers, women who drink 1 alcoholic beverage a day are almost twice as likely to develop breast cancer.
- Radiation Exposure: Women who were given radiation for postpartum mastitis, prolonged fluoroscopic X-rays for tuberculosis or for whatever reasons were exposed to a large amount of radiation before age 30 are at increased risk.
Signs and Symptoms of Breast Cancer
Of all the signs of breast cancer, the most obvious is a lump in the breast, which can be detected through regular self-examinations. These examinations are a crucial part of breast cancer prevention and should be practiced by every woman, regardless of age or risk category.
Other warning signs of breast cancer include:
- Persistent lump in the breast or underarm
- Spontaneous clear, bloody discharge from the nipple
- Unexplained change in size or shape of breast
- Changes to texture of skin over the breast, such as redness, dimpling or inflammation
- Changes in contours or texture of the nipple
- Hard marble-like area under skin of the breast
Making a Diagnosis
If you believe you have one or more of the above breast cancer symptoms, consult your doctor; she will likely have you undergo a series of tests to check for breast cancer. In addition to a physical examination and medical history assessment your doctor will probably perform either a mammography (a series of X-rays taken in the area) or an ultrasonography (the transmission of high frequency sound waves through the breast – the "echoes", indicate the density of a lump).
In any case, your doctor may additionally request a biopsy so that he may analyze a sample of the lump or tissue to check for any abnormal cell shapes or growth patterns.
Breast Cancer Treatment
How your breast cancer treatment will proceed depends upon the type of breast cancer that has been diagnosed, the stage of the cancer, as well as the size and location of the cancer cells or tumor. Of course, your personal preferences and history will also play a role in deciding which type of treatment plan is right for you.
In general, breast cancer treatment will generally be made up of one or more of the following:
- Surgery Surgery removes the cancerous tissue altogether. While this used to mean removal of the breast altogether, many recent advancements have allowed most women undergoing surgery to preserve most of their breast.
- Chemotherapy In chemotherapy treatment, anti-cancer medications are given in an attempt to shrink or kill the cancer. These medications may be taken orally and/or intravenously.
- Biological Therapy This treatment does not target cancer cells directly but instead helps your body fight cancer or control the side effects of other treatments on the body.
- Radiation Therapy High powered rays directed at the site of the cancer are used to kill off cancer cells during radiation therapy.
- Hormonal Therapy This type of treatment is designed to inhibit the spread of cancer cells as they generally require the presence of certain hormones to grow.