In this article, you’ll get everything you need to know about breast cancer.
Nowadays, it is the most common type of cancer in women and the second most common cancer globally. Surprisingly, 2018 alone came with about 2 million new breast cancer cases. The highest rate of breast cancer in the world has been found in Belgium, followed by Luxemburg. One could observe both countries are part of Europe. But what exactly is breast cancer, and how someone gets it?
Breast cancer is the result of breast cells growing uncontrollably. Uncontrollable growth of cancer cells results from gene mutations that are inherited by our parents or acquired. Acquired gene mutations result from our interaction with the environment and with potential risk factors. A large number of new breast cells will finally form a breast tumor. A breast tumor can be benign or malignant. As a general rule, benign tumors are less dangerous than malignant ones. A benign breast tumor will grow slowly and will not invade adjacent tissues, in contrast to a malignant tumor that is cancerous.
But what are the risk factors for breast cancer?
There are a couple of well-established risk factors for breast cancer. The first and most important one is being a woman. Breast cancer, as mentioned previously, is the most common type of cancer among women globally. Aging is also directly proportional to your chances of getting breast cancer. Most breast cancer cases involve women of more than 55 years old. Another risk factor is a positive family history. A first-degree female relative with breast cancer doubles your risk of getting such cancer yourself. Likewise, a personal history of breast cancer makes you 3 or 4 times more vulnerable to a new breast cancer case. Radiation or HRT (Hormone Replacement Therapy) exposure in the past, raises your risk of developing breast cancer too. Other risk factors include:
- being overweight or obese
- early menstruation
- alcohol drinking
- physical inactivity
- tobacco smoking
- certain breast changes
Signs and symptoms of breast cancer
Breast cancer may appear in many ways. Although some breast cancer cases are quite obvious, other types are not so typical. Most commonly, breast cancer appears as a lump in the breast that feels thick and hard. Upon palpation, it feels different than the near-by breast tissue. If there’s not something as obvious as a lump, you might observe changes in the size or shape of the breast. Skin dimpling might also be a sign of breast cancer. Its texture is similar to that of an orange peel. Changes in the area surrounding the nipple, the areola, might also suggest malignancy. Other general symptoms may include:
- breast or nipple pain
- retraction of the nipple
- discharge from the nipple
- itchy breasts
- changes in breast color
Symptoms do not differ importantly among men and women. Different types and stages of breast cancer come with varied symptomatology. Breast cancer staging is a very important tool that helps doctors predict your outcome and prepare your treatment plan. Breast cancer staging starts with 0 and ends with IV. A breast cancer stage IV represents a very severe case that already spread in other parts of the body. The liver, brain, bones, or lungs are the most common organs to be affected by metastatic breast cancer.
Ways to prevent breast cancer
Preventing breast cancer requires lifestyle changes. If you’ve already been exposed to breast cancer risk factors, you can try to reduce your risk by modifying certain aspects of your daily life. Firstly, you should become aware of breast cancer screening and self-examination. You can do so by consulting your doctor. Additionally, you should limit your alcohol consumption and become more physically active. Combining frequent exercise with a healthy diet will prevent you from getting overweight. Finally, you should avoid or limit combination hormone therapy after menopause.
However, if you are at high risk for breast cancer, you might consider taking additional measures of prevention. Preventive strategies can be pharmacological or surgical. Preventive drugs, such as estrogen-blocking agents, can reduce your risk of breast cancer. Another way of prevention is surgery to remove your healthy breasts. If you are at high risk, you can discuss with a doctor which methods apply to you.
Diagnosing breast cancer
Breast cancer diagnosis requires a couple of medical exams and investigations. While some of them are invasive, most are based on imaging. The most common diagnostic procedures are the following:
- manual breast examination
- breast ultrasound
- breast MRI
- breast tissue biopsy
Generally, the only definitive way to establish a diagnosis of breast cancer is a biopsy. A biopsy is performed by a needle. Your doctor will insert a needle in your breast to gain some breast tissue, which will be further examined on a microscope. Microscopic examination will establish whether the tissue is cancerous or not. Further information relevant to the cancer type can be revealed with biopsy. This type of information is valuable when it comes to treatment options.
How to treat breast cancer?
Choosing the correct method to treat your breast cancer is based on your current health status and your breast cancer stage. The options available to treat breast cancer are surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, hormone therapy, immunotherapy, and targeted therapy drugs. Supportive or palliative care is reserved for severe and uncurable breast cancers. It primarily focuses on relieving the patient from symptoms such as intense and persistent pain. Breast cancer treatment methods can be used alone or in combination to achieve the best result possible.