What is breast cancer?
A malignant growth of breast tissue in one or both breasts. Breast Cancer can spread to nearby lymph glands, lungs, bone, pelvis and liver. Breast cancer is very rare before the age of 30 (less than 1.5% of all cases). The peak ages are from 45 to 65.
How does it occur?
The cause of breast cancer is not known. Any woman can get breast cancer, but some women are more likely to develop it than others.
You are at greater risk of developing breast cancer if:
- You are over 50, obese or have a high fat diet
- You have never had any children or have conceived in the late fertile years
- You have a family history of breast cancer especially in a sister or mother
- You started your menstrual cycle before the age of 12
- You started menopause late, after the age of 55.
- Your first pregnancy was after the age of 30.
- You experience moderate to severe breast pain associated with your menstrual cycle.
- You have had a previous breast biopsy showing atypical cells.
- You have had breast cancer.
- You had radiation therapy to the chest (including your breasts) before the age of 30.
- You have had endometrial or ovarian cancer.
- You have a genetic mutation such as BRCA1, BRCA2, or BRCA3.
- Your mother took DES during pregnancy.
- You have taken estrogen in high doses after menopause.
- Some studies suggest that if you are a heavy drinker of alcohol, you have a greater risk of breast cancer.
What are the symptoms?
No symptoms occur in the early stages, but the pre-symptom changes may be detected by a mammogram. Most often the first sign of breast cancer is a lump in the breast. The lump is found most often in the upper, outer part of the breast. It is not usually painful. It may grow slowly or quickly.
Other signs of breast cancer include:
- color change, dimpling, or puckering of the skin in an area of the breast
- a change in the size or shape of the breast
- discharge from the nipple, or a nipple that has recently become inverted (the nipple retracts or pulls inward when stimulated)
- lumps felt in the armpit.
- pain, tenderness, and soreness of the breast without a lump are not usually symptoms of cancer and occur commonly in many women.
But all breast symptoms that last more than a few days need to be evaluated by your health care provider.
How is it diagnosed?
Most women find their own breast cancers, either by accident or from a breast self-exam. Sometimes breast cancers are found at a routine physical exam or on a screening mammogram. A mammogram is a special x-ray of the breast to look for breast cancer. Mammograms can detect some cancers before a lump can be felt. They detect most cancerous growths in the breasts. Mammograms are also used to check lumps that are found in a physical exam.
Most breast lumps are not cancer. Often they are fluid-filled cysts in the breast tissue that get larger and smaller with the menstrual cycle. But every lump must be checked. Lumps may be checked with a mammogram and possibly also:
- a breast exam by a health care provider
- ultrasound scan
- needle or surgical biopsy
These tests may be done even if the lump is not seen on the mammogram.
When you have a needle biopsy, you are given a local anesthetic to numb the area of your breast being tested. Then Dr. Hardy inserts a needle into the breast lump and withdraws fluid or tissue from the lump while monitoring with an ultrasound probe. If fluid fills the needle, the lump is probably a cyst and not cancer. Removing the fluid also makes fluid-filled lumps go away. Tissue withdrawn by the needle will be examined in the lab.
If you have a surgical biopsy, your surgeon will give you an anesthetic, make a cut in the breast, and remove some or all of the lump. The tissue from the lump will be examined under a microscope. If the biopsy sample shows cancerous tissue, tests may be done to see if hormones make the cancerous cells grow more. The estrogen receptor (ER) test is one of these tests. You may also have lymph nodes removed from your armpit to see if cancer has spread beyond the breast. Two procedures for removing lymph nodes are axillary node dissection and sentinel node biopsy.
How is it treated?
If a breast lump is cancerous, the decisions for treatment will be made by you and your health care provider. A surgeon or oncologist (cancer specialist) is usually also consulted. Treatment decisions will take into account:
- your age
- the stage of development of the cancer
- the type of breast cancer
- whether the cancer has spread to lymph nodes or other parts of your body
Possible surgical treatments are lumpectomy (removing the cancerous tissue only) or mastectomy (removing the entire breast). A few or many lymph nodes in the armpit area may also be removed. Other possible treatments are radiation therapy, chemotherapy (anticancer drugs), and hormone therapy. These different treatments may be used alone or in combination.
If you are considering mastectomy, you should discuss the options for breast reconstruction surgery with your surgeon.
If you have been taking estrogen, you will need to stop taking it.
How can I take care of myself?
If you have been diagnosed with breast cancer:
- Discuss your cancer and treatment options with your health care provider so that you understand them. You may want to get a second opinion.
- Tell your health care provider if your treatment causes discomfort. Usually there are ways to relieve the discomfort.
- If you are a smoker, stop smoking.
- Get regular checkups after your treatment is finished.
- Continue monthly self-exams, even if both your breasts have been removed, to look for recurrence of the cancer or a new cancer.
- There are many support services for women with breast cancer. You can find the names of groups and agencies from your health care provider or through your local American Cancer Society office.
Breast cancer survival continues to improve. As more women do regular self-exams, more cancers are found early. As mammograms and other screening methods (such as MRI) improve, more cancers are being detected before they can even be felt. Finding and treating breast cancer early greatly increases your chances of survival and cure.
To help detect breast cancer early:
- Do a breast self-exam every month.
- Have a breast exam by your health care provider every year.
- Have a mammogram every year after the age of 40, depending on your personal and< family history. If you have a sister or mother who was diagnosed with breast cancer before the age of 40, you should begin mammograms 10 years before their age of diagnosis.
- Never ignore a lump or change in the look or feel of your breast. Remember that a cancerous tumor is usually not painful.
How can I help prevent breast cancer?
- Become a lifelong exerciser. Moderate exercise (half an hour, most days of the week) may cut your risk.
- Keep a healthy weight. Women who gain 20 to 30 pounds after their teens are more likely to get breast cancer than those who don't gain this much weight. This is because fat cells produce estrogen, which promotes breast cancer.
- Eat a healthy diet that includes low-fat dairy products and lots of fruits and vegetables.
- Limit your alcohol use if you drink. It is recommended that women have no more than 1 drink a day.
- If you have a baby, consider breast-feeding. It helps lower your risk of breast cancer.
- Avoid hormone (estrogen) replacement therapy if possible. It may increase breast cancer risk.