General Information on Breast Cancer
Breast cancer has been one of the leading health concerns for women. For over 3,600 years the cancer has affected the lives of women in immeasurable ways. According to the Edwin Smith papyrus, awareness of breast cancer has been well established since 1600 BC in Egypt, thus making it the oldest form of cancer known to humans. “There is no treatment”, this is what early Egyptian physicians writes about breast cancer according to the papyrus and for centuries this has been the attitude displayed by both health practitioners and patients.
But while the Egyptians have considered the disease incurable, we now have medical advancements that make survival almost an absolute certainty at early stages. All we need is a firm knowledge on warning signs of the cancer and the determination to go through the treatment process.
What are the Causes of Breast Cancer?
About one in eight women will be diagnosed with this cancer in a lifetime. There are several risk factors which are part of our lives that we could not change. This includes aging, familial history, genetics and menstrual cycle.
The risk of getting cancer becomes higher as a person ages. Advanced cancer stages are commonly found in women fifty years old and above. About thirty percent of women who have breast cancer have a family history of breast, ovarian, uterine or ovarian cancer.
Some people have gene defects that make them more susceptible to acquiring the disease. This includes defects commonly found in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. Women with these gene defects have an eighty percent chance of getting breast cancer. Those who have started menstruation before the age of twelve or went through menopause after the age of fifty-five have higher breast cancer risk.
Women who never had children or gave birth only after the age of thirty also have an increased risk for breast cancer.
Other risk factors include alcohol consumption, obesity, hormone replacement therapy to avert menopause, the use of the drug diethylstilbestrol (DES) to prevent miscarriage, and radiation.
Curiously, there is no evidence linking the use of breast implants, antiperspirants, pesticides and underwire bras in raising cancer risks.
What are the Symptoms of Breast Cancer?
Undergoing regular breast examination is important in detecting cancerous growths because in early stages, cancer of the breast may not manifest any symptom at all. As the cancer develops women may experience one or a combination of the following.
A painless hard lump with uneven edges in the breast or armpit area.
Noticeable change in size, shape, feel and texture of the breast and nipple.
Unusual fluids, such as pus, coming out of the nipple.
For women who are in advanced breast cancer stages, symptoms may include bone pain, pain and discomfort in the breast area, skin ulcers in the breast or underarm, weight loss, and swelling of one arm.
How to Prevent Breast Cancer?
Since some risk factors are uncontrollable, awareness is the most important step in fighting the disease. In general, having a healthy diet and lifestyle reduces a person’s chance of getting cancer. Early detection of the cancer raises the cure rate and thus, breast self-examination (BSE), clinical breast examination and screening mammography are highly recommended.
Experts advise BSE once a month for women over twenty. The test should be done a week after their menstruation. For those between the ages of twenty to thirty-nine, clinical examination should be done every three years.
Women above the age of forty are generally advised to undergo a complete breast examination and mammography once a year. Breast MRI should also be done for women who are have higher breast cancer risk factors.
Certain drugs, such as Tamoxifen, are approved by the USDA for cancer prevention in women aged thirty-five or older. Preventive prophylactic mastectomy, or the surgical removal of the breast, is advised for those who already had one breast removed and for those who are identified to have genetic mutations that raise tumor risks.
What exams and tests are involved in the detection of breast cancer?
Your doctor will gather information of your symptoms and risk factors. A thorough physical examination, which includes the breast, armpit, chest and neck, would then be performed to check for possible tumor growths.
To confirm the diagnosis additional test may be performed, this includes mammography, breast MRI, CT scan and PET scan, to identify the size, shape and location of the breast lump. Breast ultrasound is also done to check if the lump is solid or is filled with fluids. Needle aspiration and sentinel lymph node biopsy is done for further laboratory examination of a breast lump and adjacent lymph nodes.
How do we classify breast cancer?
After positive diagnosis of breast cancer, further test will be done in order to check the extent of the cancer. This is called breast cancer staging. This helps doctors identify the treatment methods necessary and to give the patient a prognosis.
Breast cancer stages ranges from zero to four. When a cancer has not yet spread, it is called ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS). The cancer may be noninvasive or invasive depending of the advancement of cancer.
A combination of treatments is commonly received by women and this differs on the stage of the cancer. In stage one, the goal to eliminate the cancer and prevent its spread to other tissues and organs of the body. For women with stage four breast cancers, the treatment is aimed at prolonging the life span of the patient as the cancer in stage four cannot be treated.
How is breast cancer treated?
The treatment of cancer depends on the type and stage of the cancer and its sensitivity to certain hormones. The cancer is also monitored for overproduction of the HER2 gene.
The general breast cancer treatments include chemotherapy, radiation therapy and surgery. Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. Surgical removal of cancerous tissues is also done to effectively remove breast lumps. Surgery may be in form of removal of breast lumps (lumpectomy) or removal of the entire breast and nearby structures (mastectomy). Radiation therapy is the use of high energy x-rays to destroy cancerous tissues.
Treatments such as hormonal therapy and targeted therapy may also be done in order to avert possible metastasis and to stop certain hormones from fueling cancer growth. Some samples of hormonal therapy include drugs such as Tamoxifen and Exemestane which are used to block the effects of estrogen and reduce cancer development. Drugs such as Herceptin plus trastuzumab may be used as a form of targeted therapy in women with stage IV HER2 positive breast cancer.
What to expect after treatment?
There are a number of medical advancements that makes it possible for patients to live longer, more active lives after cancer treatment. Still, we cannot help but stress the importance of early detection. In the American Cancer Society’s study, the five year survival rate for stage zero and one cancer is at a high of a hundred percent and this goes down to at least twenty percent for stage four. Visit your physician and find out more about cancer and learn how breast self examination is done.