What is Breast Cancer?
Breast cancer develops from the uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells in the breast tissue. These growing cells form a tumour in the breast, which can sometimes be felt as a lump. There are several types of breast cancer, but the most common type is ductal carcinoma, which arises in the milk ducts (the passages through which milk flows toward the nipple). A small percentage of breast cancers develop in the lobules (small glands in which milk is produced) and are called lobular carcinoma.
Ductal and lobular cancers are further classified by whether the cancer cells have spread to other parts of the body. If the breast cancer cells are confined within the milk ducts or lobules, it is called non-invasive or in situ cancer. When the cancer has grown into surrounding tissue or spread to other parts of the body, it is called invasive or infiltrating cancer. About 80 percent of all breast cancers are invasive ductal carcinomas (IDC).
What causes Breast Cancer?
The precise cause of breast cancer is unknown; it is most likely due to a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Some women who exhibit many of the risk factors of breast cancer never contract the disease, while some who manifest none of the risk factors may succumb to it.
There does appear to be a link between breast cancer and the hormone estrogen. It’s possible that the more that a woman is exposed to estrogen, the greater risk she has of breast cancer at some point. Researchers are investigating events in a woman’s life, such as her age of first and last menstruation, her age at childbirth and whether she breastfed or underwent hormone therapy, as these events all affect the estrogen levels in the body.
The two most important risk factors to doctors right now are a woman’s family history of breast cancer and her age. A woman with a blood relative who had breast cancer is two to three times more likely to develop the disease herself, while women who are older than 60 have a greater risk than younger women.
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What are the risk factors for Breast Cancer?
There are some risk factors for breast cancer that are within your control, while there are others that are out of your hands.
Risk factors include:
- Gender: Women are much more susceptible to breast cancer than men.
- Age: Older women are at greater risk than younger women.
- Family history of breast cancer: If a blood relative, such as a mother or a sister, has had breast cancer, then the likelihood increases that other women in the family will have breast cancer.
- Inherited genes: Some women carry the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, which increase the risk of breast cancer.
- Personal history of breast cancer: If a woman has had breast cancer before, she may have it again in the other breast.
- Obesity: Obese and overweight women are at a greater risk of breast cancer.
- Alcohol use: Excessive alcohol consumption may increase the risk of breast cancer.
- Estrogen-containing medicines: Women who undergo hormone therapy after menopause may have an increased risk of breast cancer, as well as many women who take oral contraceptives containing estrogen. Ask your doctor before beginning any type of medication that includes estrogen.
- Age at menstruation, menopause and childbirth: Menstruating at an early age has been linked with an increased risk of breast cancer, as has beginning menopause at an older age. Women who give birth for the first time after the age of 35 may also be more susceptible.
How is Breast Cancer detected?
Breast cancer can develop for quite a while without any visible symptoms. As the cancer progresses, these symptoms may become apparent:
- A lump or thickening in the breast or under the arm
- A change in the size or shape of the breast
- Discharge from the nipple or tenderness of the nipple
- A change in the colour or texture of the skin of the breast or nipple (such as dimpling, puckering, scaliness or new creases)
- A scaly, thickened or inward-turning nipple
See your doctor if you experience any of these symptoms. Your doctor may then order a mammogram, or an X-ray of the breast. It is recommended that women over the age of 50 get a mammogram every two years; women who exhibit many of the risk factors should consult their doctors about when to start getting regular mammograms. Mammograms are often how doctors detect abnormalities in the breast, though they may also use tools such as breast ultrasound, breast magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or biopsies.
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How is Breast Cancer treated?
Breast cancers are divided into different groups, called stages, based on the size of the tumour, whether it is invasive or non-invasive, and whether it has spread through the lymph nodes to other parts of the body.
Stage 0 cancer indicates a small, non-invasive tumour, while Stage IV is the highest stage, indicating cancer has spread. To determine whether the cancer is invasive and has spread outside the breast, a surgeon removes one or more lymph nodes and examines them for cancer cells.
The course of treatment depends on the stage of the breast cancer, the woman’s age and her general state of health.
Treatment options include:
- Lumpectomy, or surgical removal of the tumour
- Partial mastectomy, which is removal of the tumour and some surrounding tissue
- Total mastectomy, or removal of the entire breast, leaving the underarm lymph nodes
- Modified radical mastectomy, which includes removal of the entire breast, some of the underarm lymph nodes and one of the smaller chest muscles
- Chemotherapy, which uses drugs to destroy cancerous cells. Chemotherapy may be used before or after surgery.
- Radiation uses beams of energy to kill cancerous cells.
- Hormonal therapy may be used for certain types of breast cancer that are sensitive to estrogen and progesterone. Tests can determine if the cells will respond to hormones.
- Targeted drugs, which include Avastin and Herceptin
After enduring a scary diagnosis and a strenuous treatment, it can be frustrating to learn that you still have to be on guard for a recurrence of the cancer. Still, the odds are with you – 70 percent of women live more than five years after receiving their initial diagnosis, while half survive more than 10 years.