Breast Cancer: Signs and Symptoms, Causes, Risk factors, Diagnosis, Treatment, Outlook and Prevention

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women with Breast Cancer

1Overview

Cancer is a serious health scare. Over the past years, the number of people who have a kind of cancer has dramatically increased. One of the most common types of cancer in women is breast cancer.

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women across the globe, with a staggering 1.7 million new cases detected in 2012 alone. In the United States, death rates from breast cancer have been declining since 1989 because of increased awareness and improved treatments.

This type of cancer involves the growth of malignant cells in the mammary gland. When cancer strikes the body’s tissues, like in the breast, the once healthy cells will change and grow out of control. As a result, these cells will form a mass or sheet called a tumor. Tumors can be benign or cancerous (malignant). When a tumor is malignant, it can affect surrounding tissues and spread to the other parts of the body.

Men can get breast cancer too, but they account for just one percent of all cases. Women, on the other hand, are more likely to develop this kind of cancer. Breast cancer is the second leading cause of deaths from lung cancer.

Types Of Breast Cancer

Ductal Carcinoma

Ductal Carcinoma In Situ (DCIS)

Ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) is a non-invasive kind of cancer. This type of cancer has not yet spread outside the breast ducts.

Infiltrating/Invasive Ductal Carcinoma

This type of cancer has spread outside of the duct. This is the most common type of cancer. About 80 percent of all breast cancers are invasive.

Less common types of breast cancer include lobular, medullary, tubular, metaplastic, mucinous and papillary breast cancer.

2Signs and Symptoms

The early stages of breast cancer may be asymptomatic, which means that the patient will not feel any pain or discomfort. Even if there is no pain, there are changes in the breasts that may indicate breast cancer.

  • Change in breast size and shape
  • Skin dimpling or skin changes on the breast
  • Nipple abnormalities
  • Nipple inversion
  • Blood-stained discharge
  • Axillary lump

3Causes

Despite the fact that the cause of breast cancer is still unclear, it can develop when the genetic material in cells causes them to evolve into malignant cells. They start multiplying in an uncontrolled way, forming tumors or nodules.

Women whose daughter, sister or mother has had breast cancer are two to three times more likely to have the disease. The risk is particularly higher if a first-degree relative is affected. Several studies have found that two genes may be responsible for the development of breast cancers in families – BRCA1 and BRCA2. When a woman has either of these two genes, the lifetime risk is between 56 and 85 percent.

These genes have also been linked to the formation of other cancers like ovarian cancer, melanoma or skin cancer, male breast cancer and pancreatic cancer.

The severity of the disease and how these cells develop, however, depends on many risk factors.

4Risk factors

There are risk factors that can affect one’s likelihood of developing breast cancer.

Age

As a woman ages, the risk of developing breast cancer also increases. The condition is common among women who are 50 years old and above. In fact, eight out of 10 breast cancer cases happen on women after 50 years old.

Genetics

As discussed earlier, familial history and genetics play a pivotal role in the development of breast cancer. If you have a relative who had breast cancer, you have a higher chance of getting sick too.

Previous Benign Breast Lump

In some instances, even if the benign breast lump has been removed. There are some types of lump that may increase your risk of having a malignant breast cancer. When there are changes in the breast tissue and the cells are growing abnormally, malignancy can occur even if the previous tumor was benign.

Exposure To Estrogen

The female hormone called estrogen can stimulate breast cancer cells to grow abnormally. The longer the exposure to estrogen, the more likely a woman may develop breast cancer. For instance, having the first menstruation at an early age and menopause at a late age may increase the risk of breast cancer because of the longer estrogen exposure.

Moreover, not having children or postponing having kids at a later age may increase the possibility of breast cancer because of more extended estrogen exposure.

Obesity

Being overweight or obese may increase your odds of having breast cancer. This has been linked to estrogen too. Being overweight and obese may signal the brain to produce more estrogen in the body.

5Diagnosis

Early detection of breast cancer may increase the chances of survival. Thus, diagnosis is crucial.

Breast Exam

You can check your breasts each month to determine any lumps or tumors. The doctor can also help you identify if there are abnormalities on the breasts.

Mammogram

Considered the X-ray of the breast, the mammogram is the most commonly used method to screen for breast cancer.

Breast Ultrasound

The breast ultrasound is a scan that uses sound waves to produce images of structures inside the body. This procedure is necessary to determine if a breast lump is a solid mass or a fluid-filled cyst.

Breast Biopsy

A breast biopsy is a procedure wherein the lump is surgically removed. Samples of the breast tissue are examined under a procedure called biopsy. This method is necessary for evaluating the condition’s severity and grade.

Breast Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)

During a breast MRI, the magnet transmits magnetic energy and radio waves through the breast tissue. It can scan tissue in the breast, identifying tumors or cysts.

6Treatment

The treatment of breast cancer depends on the severity of the condition and its type.

Surgery

Cancer on the breast may take a toll on a woman’s self-esteem. In treating the illness, there is a need to remove parts of the breast or the whole one. Here are the types of surgeries.

Lumpectomy

Lumpectomy is the surgery that removes the breast cancer or tumor. This is done under local anesthesia, and it’s for small tumors.

Mastectomy

Mastectomy is the removal of all breast tissue. When this procedure is done, the surgeon will remove all breast tissue including the fatty tissue, nipple, areola, ducts, and lobules. Sometimes, if the cancer has spread to other tissues in the breast, a bilateral mastectomy is recommended.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy involves the killing of cancer cells. These strong medicines fight the disease but may cause a wide variety of side effects such as fatigue, nausea, hair loss, and hot flashes.

In women with large tumors, chemotherapy may be given before the surgery to prevent cancer’s spread to other parts of the body.

Radiation

One of the recent innovations in cancer treatment is the use of high-powered beams of energy to kill cancer cells. Radiation therapy is done using a large machine wherein energy beams are aimed at the body, termed as external radiation.

However, radiation may also be done by placing a radioactive material inside the body. The common side effects of radiation are fatigue and a sunburn-like rash at the area where they directed the beam. More severe side effects may include damage to the heart or lungs but are very rare.

Hormonal Therapy

Another way to treat breast cancer is through hormonal therapy. Hormone-blocking therapy aims to treat breast cancer by targeting those who are sensitive to hormones. The hormonal therapy may be used before or after the other treatment options. This will prevent the recurrence or relapse of the cancer cells.

7Outlook

According to the American Cancer Society, the prognosis of breast cancer depends on the stage and severity of the tumor growth and cancer spread. Cancers that have not yet metastasized to the other parts of the body are more likely to respond to treatments. On the other hand, if the cancer has metastasized or has spread to other organs, it’s harder to treat.

In the treatment of cancer, there is a thing called survival rate. Survival rates tell what portion of people with the same kind and stage of cancer are still alive at a period, for example, five years.

In breast cancer, the prognosis or outlook for women varies by the extent of cancer. If the cancer is in its earlier stages, the prognosis is better compared to those who were diagnosed at the late stages of the disease.

The 5-year survival rate for women at stage 0 or 1 of breast cancer is approximately 100 percent. This means that in five years’ time, the majority of the women with this type of breast cancer are still alive.

Moreover, women with stage II of breast cancer, the survival rate is about 93 percent in five years’ time. The survival rate for women with stage III breast cancer is about 72 percent.

However, women in the late stages of the disease, wherein cancer has spread to the other parts of the body are harder to treat. Stage IV or metastatic breast cancers have a 5-year survival rate of approximately 22 percent.

8Prevention

There is no specific preventive measure to avoid having breast cancer, especially if you’re genetically predisposed. However, breast cancer prevention starts with healthy habits.

Being proactive with one’s health is important to decrease breast cancer risk even in high-risk women. Here are ways to reduce one’s risk of breast cancer:

  • Limit alcohol intake to less than one drink per day. You can also avoid drinking alcohol at all.
  • Do not smoke
  • Control your weight
  • Exercise regularly
  • Breastfeed your baby, for new mothers
  • Limit dose and duration of hormone therapy
  • Avoid radiation exposure