What is Breast Cancer?
It is the most common form of cancer found in women the world over; it affects as many as one in eight women. Things are better now, than they have ever been, with regards to detection, prevention and treatment; more women are being helped thanks to the advancement in technology. That being said, considering the sheer number of women who find themselves diagnosed with the same, it is definitely advised to be up to date on the nature of this cancer, and arm yourself with information that could help you or a woman that you know, and we would like to help you with that.
Breast cancer develops when cells in the breast begin to grow out of control; these cells usually form a tumor that can often be seen on an x-ray or felt as a lump in the breast. There are two types of tumors: it is malignant -cancer- if the cells can grow into surrounding tissues or spread to distant areas of the body and metastasize, or benign if it doesn’t develop into the same. Breast cancer occurs almost entirely in women, but men can get breast cancer, too; cells in nearly any part of the body can become cancer and can spread to other areas of the body and though it is rarely seen in men, there are cases reported in those over the age of 70.
Changes or mutations in DNA cause normal breast cells to become cancerous. Certain DNA changes are passed on from parents- are inherited- and can greatly increase the risk of breast cancer. Other lifestyle-related risk factors, such as what you eat and how much you exercise, can further increase your chances of developing breast cancer, but it’s not yet known exactly how some of these risk factors cause normal cells to become cancer. Hormones seem to play a role in many cases of breast cancer, but just how this happens is not fully understood.
Where Does It Start?
Breast cancers can start from different parts of the breast; most breast cancers begin in the ducts that carry milk to the nipple and are also known as ductal cancers. Some start in the glands that make breast milk, and are known as lobular cancers. There are also other types of breast cancer that are less common and start in other tissues in the breast; these cancers are called sarcomas and lymphomas and are not really thought of as breast cancers. It’s also important to understand that most breast lumps are not cancer, they are benign; as mentioned earlier, benign breast tumors are abnormal growths, but they do not spread outside of the breast and are not life threatening. However, some benign breast lumps can increase a woman’s risk of getting breast cancer and therefore any breast lump or change should be checked out by a doctor to determine whether it is benign or cancerous, and whether it might increase your chances of contracting breast cancer later in life.
How Does It Spread?
Breast cancer can spread when the cancer cells get into the blood or lymph system and
are carried to other parts of the body. The lymph system is a network of lymph -or lymphatic- vessels found throughout the body; the lymph vessels carry lymph fluid and connect lymph nodes to one another. Lymph nodes are small, bean-shaped collections of immune system cells. Lymph vessels are like small veins, except that they carry a clear fluid called lymph -instead of blood- away from the breast and it contains tissue fluid and waste products, as well as immune system cells. Breast cancer cells can enter lymph vessels and start to grow in lymph nodes;
if cancer cells have spread to your lymph nodes, there is a higher chance that the cells could have traveled through the lymph system and spread to other parts of your body. The more lymph nodes with breast cancer cells, the more likely it is that the cancer may be found in other organs as well. Because of this, finding cancer in one or more lymph nodes often affects your treatment plan. That being said, not all women with cancer cells in their lymph nodes develop metastases, and some women who have no cancer cells in their lymph nodes might later develop metastases.
Signs and Symptoms:
Knowing how your breasts normally look and feel is an extremely important part of breast health and could make all the difference in the event of finding out that you or someone you know has developed breast cancer; catching it as early as possible gives you a better chance of successful treatment. But knowing what to look for does not, and should not, take the place of having regular mammograms and other screening tests. Screening tests can help find breast cancer in its early stages, even before any symptoms appear.
The most common symptom of breast cancer is a new lump or mass; a painless, hard mass that has irregular edges is more likely to be cancer, but breast cancers can be tender, soft, or rounded. They can even be painful. For this reason, it is important to have any new breast mass or lump or breast change checked by a doctor.
Other possible symptoms of breast cancer include:
- Swelling of all or part of a breast, even if no distinct lump is felt
- Skin irritation or dimpling
- Breast or nipple pain
- Nipple retraction, where it turns inward
- Redness, scaliness, or thickening of the nipple or breast skin
- Nipple discharge -other than breast milk
- Sometimes a breast cancer can spread to lymph nodes under the arm or around the collar bone and cause a lump or swelling there, even before the original tumor in the breast tissue is large enough to be felt. Swollen lymph nodes should also be checked by a doctor.
Although any of these symptoms can be caused by things other than breast cancer, if you have them, it is advised that you visit a doctor so that he can confirm or deny the same. It is also important to note that mammograms do not find every breast cancer, so you should be aware of changes in your breasts and to know the signs and symptoms of breast cancer to catch it early enough.
Finding breast cancer early and getting state-of-the-art cancer treatment are the most important ways to prevent deaths as a result of breast cancer. Breast cancer that’s found early, when it’s small and has not spread, is easier to treat successfully, with minimal impact. And the only way to ensure that it doesn’t slip under the radar is to undergo regular screening tests. They are ways of detecting the disease before any of the symptoms are experienced, and is what enables early detection. Breast cancers found during screening exams are more likely to be smaller and still confined to the breast. The size of a breast cancer and how far it has spread are some of the most important factors in predicting the prognosis of a woman with this disease. There are some guidelines, that have been released by the American Cancer Society, to help women at average risk detect breast cancer as early as possible and they are as follows:
- Women between 40 and 44 should ideally start screening with a mammogram every year.
- Women 45 to 54 should get mammograms every year.
- Women 55 and older can switch to a mammogram every other year, or they can choose to continue yearly mammograms. Screening should continue as long as a woman is in good health and is expected to live 10 more years or longer.
- All women should be familiar with how their breasts normally look and feel and report any changes to a medical practitioner right away.
- All women should understand what to expect when getting a mammogram for breast cancer screening – what the test can and cannot do.
What is a Mammogram?
Regular mammograms can help find breast cancer at an early stage, when treatment is most successful; a mammogram can find breast changes that could be cancer years before physical symptoms develop. Research has shown that women who have regular mammograms are more likely to have breast cancer found early, and are less likely to need aggressive treatment like surgery to remove the breast -mastectomy- and chemotherapy, and are more likely to be cured. That being said, mammograms are not perfect; they miss some cancers. A woman might need more tests to find out if something found on a mammogram is or is not cancer.
There are several ways to treat breast cancer, depending on its type and stage.
- Local treatments: Some treatments are called local therapies, meaning they treat the tumor without affecting the rest of the body. Types of local therapy used for breast cancer include:
- Radiation therapy
These treatments are more likely to be useful for earlier stage, or less advanced, cancers, although they might also be used in some other situations.
- Systemic treatments: Breast cancer can also be treated using drugs, which can be given orally or directly into the bloodstream. These are called systemic therapies because they can reach cancer cells anywhere in the body. Depending on the type of breast cancer, several different types of drugs might be used, including:
- Hormone therapy
- Targeted therapy
Most women with breast cancer will have some type of surgery to remove the tumor. Depending on the type of breast cancer and how advanced it is, you may need other types of treatment as well, either before or after surgery, or sometimes during. Surgery is less likely to be a main part of the treatment for more advanced breast cancers; Typical treatment plans are based on the type of breast cancer, its stage, and any special situations:
- Invasive breast cancer (stages I-IV)
- Ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS)
- Lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS)
- Inflammatory breast cancer
- Breast cancer during pregnancy
The treatment plan will depend on other factors as well, including a woman’s overall health and personal preferences.
Making treatment decisions
It’s important to discuss all of your treatment options, including their goals and possible side effects, with your doctors to help make the decision that suits you best. It’s also very important to ask questions if there is anything you’re not sure about. If this is the case, you may also want to get a second opinion; this can give you more information and help you feel more certain about the treatment plan you choose. If you aren’t sure where to go for a second opinion, ask your doctor for help.
Considering complementary and alternative methods
You may hear about alternative or complementary methods to treat your cancer or relieve symptoms that your doctor hasn’t mentioned. These methods can include vitamins, herbs, and special diets, or other methods such as acupuncture or massage, to name a few. Complementary methods refer to treatments that are used along with your regular medical care. Alternative treatments are used instead of a doctor’s medical treatment. Although some of these methods might be helpful in relieving symptoms or helping you feel better, many have not been proven to work. Some might even be dangerous if there is lack of supervision or direction, and in cases such as this, self medication will definitely do more harm than good.
Be sure to talk to your medical team about any method you are thinking about using, they can help you learn what is known -or not known- about the method, which can help you make an informed decision.
Choosing to stop treatment
For some, when treatments have been attempted and are no longer effective in controlling the cancer, it could be time to weigh the benefits and risks of continuing treatments. Whether or not you wish to continue treatment, there are things you can do to help maintain or improve your quality of life. There are people that you can talk to, and changes that you can incorporate into your lifestyle, to make it a little easier.
Some people, especially if the cancer is advanced, might choose to discontinue treatment. There reasons might vary, and it should be a decision that you’re not only comfortable with, but one that is entirely yours. Talking to your doctors before you make that decision is generally advised, so that you are well informed of the consequences.
Cancer is the end all and be all for some people, and considering the consequences, its seriousness cannot be denied. That being said, being vigilant and treating symptoms as early as possible will go a long way in ensuring that you face as little discomfort as possible. It is important to discuss this with your family and friends, so that they have a good idea of what is going on; cancer patients often find themselves stigmatised in society, but talking to people and helping them understand will definitely help in making sure that you are not treated like a victim everywhere you go. There are people and organisations that you can talk to if you need some outside counselling, and your doctors can help you get in touch with support groups if you so desire.