Breast cancer originates from breast tissue, most commonly from the inner lining of milk ducts or the lobules that supply the ducts with milk. Men can get breast cancer, too, but they account for just one percent of all breast cancer incidences. Among women, breast cancer is the most common cancer and the second leading cause of cancer deaths after lung cancer.
If eight women were to live to be at least 85, one of them would be expected to develop the disease at some point during her life. Two-thirds of women with breast cancer are over 50 years.
Risk Factors for Breast Cancer
- Gender: Breast cancer occurs more often in women than in men.
- Age: Two out of three women with invasive cancer are diagnosed after age 55.
- Race: Breast cancer is diagnosed more often in Caucasian women than women of other races.
- Family History and Genetic Factors: If a close relative (mother, sister, father or child) has been diagnosed with breast or ovarian cancer, one has a higher risk of developing breast cancer in the future.
- Personal Health History: If you have been diagnosed with breast cancer in one breast, you have an increased risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer in the other breast in the future. In addition, the risk increases if abnormal breast cells have been detected before.
- Menstrual and Reproductive History: Early menstruation (before age 12), late menopause (after 55), tend to increase the risk for breast cancer.
What are the signs & symptoms of Breast Cancer?
In its early stages, breast cancer usually has no symptoms. As the tumor develops, you may note the following signs;
- A lump in the breast or underarm that persists after your menstrual cycle. Swelling in the armpit.
- Pain or tenderness in the breast
- A noticeable flattening or indentation on the breast
- Any change in the size, contour, texture, or temperature of the breast. A reddish, pitted surface like the skin of an orange could be a sign of advanced breast cancer.
- A change in the nipple, such as a nipple retraction, dimpling, itching, a burning sensation, or ulceration.
- Unusual discharge from the nipple that may be clear, bloody, or another color
- A marble-like area under the skin.
Breast cancer screening refers to testing otherwise-healthy women (and men) for breast cancer in an attempt to achieve an early diagnosis. Early detection will usually improve outcomes. The following screening tests are commonly undertaken:
- Self-Breast exam: From about 20 years of age every woman is advised to carry our self-breast examination monthly, and continue the practice throughout their lives — even during pregnancy and after menopause. Guidance is advised especially at the initial examination.
- X-ray (mammogram): Commonly used for breast cancer screening. The risk of regular exposure to X-rays limits the use of this method. Your doctor will advise on suitability.
- Breast ultrasound: This type of scan helps clinicians confirm whether a lump is a solid mass or a fluid-filled cyst.
- Biopsy: A sample of tissue with abnormality, such as a lump, is surgically removed and sent to the laboratory for analysis and confirmation of presence of cancers cells
- Breast MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scans: This type of scan helps the doctor determine the presence and the extent of cancer.
Management of Breast Cancer
Management of breast cancer depends on various factors, including the stage of the cancer. Increasingly aggressive treatments are employed in accordance with the poorer the patient’s prognosis and the higher the risk of recurrence of cancer following treatment.
This involves surgical removal of the tumor, typically along with some of the surrounding tissue.
Standard surgeries include:
- Removal of the whole breast (Mastectomy)
- Removal of one-quarter of the breast (Quadrantectomy)
- Removal of a small part of the breast (Lumpectomy)
- Medication (Chemotherapy)
Drugs are used after and in addition to surgery to eliminate cancer cells as much as possible.
Radiotherapy is given after surgery to the region of the tumor, to destroy microscopic tumor cells that may have escaped surgery.
Prevention of Breast Cancer
Some lifestyle changes can help significantly reduce a person’s risk of developing breast cancer.
- Alcohol consumption: Women who drink in moderation, or do not drink alcohol at all, are less likely to develop breast cancer compared to those who drink large amounts regularly. Moderation means no more than one alcoholic drink per day.
- Physical exercise: Exercising five days a week has been shown to reduce a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer.
- Diet: Women who follow a healthy, well-balanced diet may reduce their risk of developing breast cancer. Fish oils help reduce breast cancer risk.
- Postmenopausal hormone therapy: Limiting hormone therapy may help reduce the risk of developing breast cancer. It is important for one to discuss the positives and negatives thoroughly with her doctor.
- Body weight: Women who have a healthy body weight have a considerably lower chance of developing breast cancer compared to obese and overweight females.
- Women at high risk of breast cancer: The doctor may recommend estrogen-blocking drugs or preventive surgery which is a possible option for women at very high risk.
- Breast cancer screening: Patients should discuss with their doctor when to start breast cancer screening exams and tests.
- Breastfeeding: Women who breastfeed run a lower risk of developing breast cancer compared to other women.
Self Breast Examination
Self Breast examination is performed to look out for the following:
- Lumps swellings and skin thickening in the breast or underarm.
- Changes in size or shape of the breast
- Redness of discharge of the breast
Below is a brief guideline of the simple process that should be performed once monthly during the self-breast examination.
- Stand upright, facing the mirror. Check for the breast color size and shape any bulge or swelling or nipple changes.
- Raise arms straight up and repeat the process
- Squeeze nipple gently for any discharge
- With the left hand, feel the entire right breast for any lumps or swelling. With the right hand repeat the process but on the left breast.
Note: A lump once identified should not be ignored. Have a doctor check it further. Do not panic if you identify a lump. It does not automatically mean you have cancer of the breast.
You may need to consult a doctor or health care provider for guidance on self-breast examination, screening and more information on breast cancer.