Breast cancer is the most common cancer in the United Kingdom accounting for one in three cancer cases. Enshrined in myth and feared by women worldwide, breast cancer has to be one of the most recognized and publicized health issues to date. With over 41,000 people in the UK diagnosed with breast cancer every year, medical researchers are working hard to find a cure and doctors are learning how to more effectively diagnose and treat the disease.
What is Breast Cancer?
Breast cancer is a form of cancer that develops in the breast. This type of cancer occurs when the cells in your breast begin to multiple out of control. This causes lumps, or tumors, to form deep within your breast. Without treatment, your cells continue to grow and multiple, causing the cancer to gradually spread throughout your body.
You may be surprised to learn that men can also develop breast cancer. Although it is rare, about 250 men are diagnosed in the U.K every year. Breast cancer does not just affect those who develop the disease but their family, friends and support network. It is important to be familiar with the signs and symptoms of breast cancer so that you may save your own life in the future.
Breast Cancer Signs And Symptoms
An early diagnosis of breast cancer is associated with a higher survival rate. Therefore, it is vital to be able to recognize the signs of breast cancer. Symptoms of breast cancer can include:
- Clear or bloody liquid discharge from nipple
- Nipple retraction or indentation
- Change in size and shape of breasts
- Compression or dimpling of the skin over breast
- Redness and dimpling of the skin over breast like an orange peel
Health experts say your breasts may change in size and shape during pregnancy and throughout your menstrual cycle. Lumps may develop from fibrocystic changes, cysts, non-cancerous tumours, infections, breast trauma or calcium deposits. They still advise though, if the lump does not go away after a month, to visit your doctor for consultation.
Breast Cancer Risk Factors
The likelihood of developing breast cancer greatly increases with age. Most women develop breast cancer after the age of 50. By the time you are 85, you have a one in eight chance of developing the disease. However, women younger than 50 are not immune to developing this type of cancer, as evidenced from such high profile stars developing breast cancer such as Melissa Etheridge, Sheryl Crow, and Kylie Minogue. Other known risk factors include:
- If you have had breast cancer before
- Family history of breast or ovarian cancer
- You have inherited a gene defect for breast cancer
- You received radiation as a child or adolescent
- You have excess weight
- Early first period, enter menopause later
- If you have never had children or first conceived after age 35
- Race- Caucasian women develop breast cancer more often than Black or Hispanic women
- Treatment with combination hormone therapy
- Smoking with a family history of cancer
- Chemical exposure
- Alcohol abuse
- Breast changes discovered after breast biopsy
BRAC1 and BRCA2
Responsible for helping DNA repairs, every person has the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene inside of them. So long as these genes are working as they should, you body will stay healthy. However, if these genes mutate or become abnormal, your risk of developing breast cancer can increase to as much as 85%. Abnormalities in either of these genes can be present from birth or you can develop them later in life. Mutated BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes are also associated with ovarian cancer.
Breast Cancer Diagnosis
Whether you discover a lump or one is found during a routine breast exam or mammogram, your doctor has a range of diagnostic tests to choose from for further examination. Some of these tests include ultrasounds, biopsies, hormone tests, staging tests and genetic testing.
A biopsy involves taking a small sample of tissue from the affected breast and sending it to the laboratory for analysis. If malignant cells are found from the sample, your doctor may recommend hormone tests. In these tests your doctor is looking to see if the malignant cells have receptors for the hormones estrogen and/or progesterone, which can affect how the cancer develops. If the cells are found to have receptors, your doctor may treat you with the drug tamoxifen. Tamoxifen will prevent estrogen from binding to these cells.
Breast Cancer Stages and Genetic Testing
Breast cancer is broken up into four stages, with stage 1 indicating that the cancer is still in its early stages and confined to a small area. The higher the stage, the more advanced the cancer has become. By stage 4, the cancer has spread to major organs in your body.
Staging tests refers to the diagnostic procedures your doctor conducts to find out how far the cancer has spread. Breast cancer classified as stage 0 means that the cancer is non-invasive and only found in one place. These cancerous lumps can be removed and patients can recover successfully. The amount of treatment you receive will be dependant upon how advanced your cancer is. Since Stage 1 cancer is still confined to a particular area, treatment is usually successful. At Stage 4, radiation and chemotherapy treatment is required.
Genetic testing is a blood test done to assess a person’s genes for BRCA1 and BRCA2. Testing is done when there is a hereditary link to breast or ovarian cancer (i.e. if someone else in your family has developed one of these cancers). Although the test can signify that a person has an increased risk of developing breast cancer, it cannot indicate just how high that risk is. While the test may be helpful, it is not always recommended.
Breast Cancer Treatment
There is a wide range of treatments for breast cancer including surgery, like mastectomy and reconstructive surgery; radiation therapy; chemotherapy; hormone therapy; and biological therapy.
Breast Cancer Surgery
In the past, receiving a radical mastectomy, where the entire breast, chest muscles and lymph nodes are removed, was a common procedure for those with breast cancer. However, thanks to advances in surgery and treatment techniques, radical mastectomies are rarely performed today. Instead many women opt to have a lumpectomy, partial mastectomy, or a simple mastectomy followed by radiation, chemotherapy or hormone therapy.
A lumpectomy is where a cancerous breast lump is removed along with the non-cancerous tissue surrounding the lump thereby preserving the breast tissue. Lumpectomies are not recommended for women with deep tumors, women who have widespread multiple tumors, women with connective tissue disease or pregnant women. A partial mastectomy is where the cancerous lump is removed as well as normal tissue and lymph nodes but some of the breast tissue is preserved.
Women undergoing a simple mastectomy will have all of their breast tissue remove including the nipple and areola. Reconstructive surgery is available and can be done at the time of your mastectomy or later on. In some cases, insurance may cover this procedure. Reconstruction can be done through the use of implants or by using your own body tissue.
Radiation treatment usually follows both invasive and non-invasive breast cancer surgeries. Radiation therapy is an X-ray treatment that destroys cancer cells and reduces tumors. It is done about four weeks after surgery and will last for five or six consecutive weeks. Each radiation session lasts for 30 minutes and are not painful but over time you will feel great fatigue and have tender, puffy breasts. Radiation therapy carries some risks though including swelling of the arms, lung, heart or nerve damage, change in breast density or another tumor.
Over a three to six month period, your doctor may treat you with four to eight chemotherapy sessions. Chemotherapy involves taking drugs either by pill or intravenously to destroy any remaining cancer cells in your breasts. Unfortunately the drugs also affect normal healthy cells including hair, bone and digestive tract cells. Therefore people being treated with chemotherapy experience side effects such as losing their hair, nausea, vomiting and fatigue. Some long-term effects may include memory loss, early menopause, infertility and other forms of cancer.
Hormone therapy is generally used for those women who are found to have advanced stages of cancer or as a prevention treatment for women with estrogen receptor cancer. This type of cancer is where the hormones estrogen or progesterone encourage the growth of breast cancer cells in the body. Medications are given to prevent estrogen from binding to these breast cancer cells. Two of these medications are tamoxifen and aromatase inhibitors.
Biological therapies are experimental treatments that look to stimulate the body’s immune system to fight cancer. Biological therapy is usually only available in clinical trials. However, one medication, Herceptin, has become available to treat certain cases of advanced breast cancer tumors.
Breast Cancer Prevention
It is important to be familiar with your breasts so that if a change does occur you can discover it yourself and consult a doctor immediately. One of the best ways to get familiar with your breasts and to notice any changes to them early is through regular self-breast exams. To prevent breast cancer, health experts advise you to:
- limit alcohol intake
- maintain a healthy weight
- engage in daily exercise
- eat high-fiber foods
- limit fat consumption
- use olive oil in cooking
- eat lots of fruits and vegetables
- avoid being exposed to pesticides
- do not over-use antibiotics
Studies have been conducted that suggest taking an aspirin once a week may help protect women against breast cancer. Talk to your doctor before taking aspirin as it has been known to have the side effects of stomach bleeding and ulcers, bleeding in the urinary tract and intestines and hemorrhagic stroke. Do not take aspirin if you have had ulcers, diseases of the liver or kidneys, blood disorders or gastrointestinal bleeding.