By now, it’s common knowledge that October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, an observance commemorated worldwide. Simply put, breast cancer is the uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells in the tissues of the breast. The abnormal cells ultimately form a lump, or tumor, in the breast.
Breast cancer is the second most common cancer in women in the United States, behind skin cancer. It accounts for about 30 percent of all new cancers in females each year. While breast cancer is much more common in women, men can be affected as well.
According to the American Cancer Society, about 287,850 new cases of invasive breast cancer and about 51,400 new cases of noninvasive breast cancers are expected to be diagnosed in women in 2022. About 43,250 women are expected to die from breast cancer in 2022. In addition, about 2,710 new cases of invasive breast cancer are expected to be diagnosed in men in 2022, and about 530 men are expected to die from it.
Each breast is composed of three main parts: lobules, ducts and connective tissue. The lobules are glands that produce breast milk. The ducts are tiny tubes that carry the milk to the nipple, and the connective tissue holds all the breast tissues in place. Most breast cancers begin in the ducts and lobules and are called invasive ductal carcinoma and invasive lobular carcinoma. Invasive ductal carcinoma makes up 70 to 80 percent of all breast cancers.
Ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) is a breast disease that may lead to invasive breast cancer. It is also referred to as stage 0 breast cancer because the abnormal cells are only found in the lining of the ducts. They haven’t spread to other tissues in the breast or other parts of the body.
Symptoms of breast cancer can vary from person to person. Some people experience no signs or symptoms. Possible warning signs include a change in the size, shape or contour of the breast; a mass or lump in the breast or underarm; a rash around or on a nipple; discharge from a nipple that may contain blood; armpit or breast pain that doesn’t change with the menstrual cycle; and irritation or dimpling of the skin of the breast.
Doctors don’t know what causes abnormal cells in the breast to divide and multiply, but genetics seems to play a role in the development of some breast cancers.
Researchers have also identified several factors that increase the risk for developing breast cancer. These include age (risk is higher in those 55 and older); family history of breast cancer; smoking; alcohol use; obesity; previous radiation exposure, especially to the head, neck or chest; and hormone therapy. Women who use hormone replacement therapy (HRT) after menopause or the pill for contraception are at an increased risk.
Breast cancer screening can detect signs or symptoms. It cannot prevent breast cancer, but it can catch it in its early stages when it’s easier to treat. Screening begins with you. Examine your breasts regularly to look for changes in size and shape. Also feel your breasts for lumps.
The most common screening test for breast cancer is the mammogram, which is an x-ray of the breast to look for abnormalities, including tumors. Another screening test is ultrasound, which uses sound waves to create pictures of the insides of the breasts. Ultrasound can differentiate between a solid mass and a fluid-filled cyst.
The doctor may follow up with a breast MRI, which provides detailed images of the inside of the breast. An MRI can help a doctor identify cancer and other abnormalities within the breasts. If a tumor is detected, the doctor may take a sample of its tissue to analyze under a microscope, a process called biopsy.
Treatment options for breast cancer include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, hormone therapy, immunotherapy and targeted drug therapy. The treatment or combination of treatments chosen depends on the type of breast cancer and how far it has spread from its original site.
There are different types of surgery for breast cancer. A lumpectomy removes the tumor and an area of healthy tissue surrounding it. A mastectomy is the removal of the entire breast, which is often followed by a breast reconstruction. Other procedures remove lymph nodes affected by the cancer.
Chemotherapy may be recommended before surgery to help shrink tumors or after surgery to kill remaining cancer cells. Radiation therapy is typically used after surgery to destroy remaining cancer cells.
Some types of breast cancer feed on hormones, such as estrogen and progesterone. Hormone therapy is used to either lower these hormone levels or stop the hormones from attaching to cancer cells. This is often used after surgery to prevent hormone-sensitive cancers from recurring.
Immunotherapy energizes the body’s infection-fighting immune system to fight cancer cells. Targeted drug therapy uses certain drugs that target specific cell characteristics that lead to cancer.
Unfortunately, there is no way to prevent breast cancer. However, there are steps that can significantly lower the risk for developing the disease. These include limiting alcohol consumption, eating a healthy diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables, exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy weight and following doctor recommendation for screening exams, including mammograms.
With more emphasis on screening and improved treatments, the survival rates for people with breast cancer are increasing. That’s the best news to celebrate this Breast Cancer Awareness Month.