Breast cancer is one of the most common types of cancer in women. Currently, research shows us that one in eight women in the Unites States will develop breast cancer in her lifetime.
What Causes Breast Cancer?
Like most cancers, breast cancer is a very complex disease. The exact cause of many cases of breast cancer may be unknown. However, breast cancer does seem to have both genetic and hormonal risk factors.
Breast cancer has a strong hereditary component. If you have an immediate relative (mother, sister, or daughter) who has gotten breast cancer, then statistically you are two to three times more likely to develop breast cancer yourself.
Research has established a strong link between a woman’s exposure to estrogen and her risk for breast cancer. Namely, the more estrogen a woman has been exposed to in her life, the more likely she is to develop cancer. Estrogen, a hormone that is essential to a woman’s reproductive functions, signals cells to divide. The more cells divide, the more likely an abnormal cell will be produced.
Estrogen is a hormone that is naturally produced in the body. Your individual exposure to estrogen depends on some conditions you can control, and others that you can’t.
You may be at an increased risk of breast cancer if you:
- Had your first child after the age of 30.
- Began menstruating earlier than age 12
- Stopped menstruating after the age of 55
- Have an abnormally short or long menstrual cycle.
It does not appear that hormonal birth control significantly increases the risk of breast cancer. However, hormone replacement therapy, usually taken as a treatment for symptoms of menopause, might increase the risk when taken for longer than 5 years.
Age is a well-known risk factor. Women over 50 years old are more likely to develop breast cancer than younger women. Being overweight, physically inactive, and consuming alcohol on a regular basis could also increase your risk.
Symptoms of Breast Cancer
Some breast cancers can be treated if they are caught early, but they may become untreatable and deadly if caught the later stages. Although many breast cancers have no symptoms in the earliest stages, you can sometimes catch the warning signs of a developing tumor. This is why it is important to perform a monthly breast self-exam and to attend your annual well-woman appointments. The warning signs include:
- A lump in the breast or armpit that lasts throughout your menstrual cycle. Lumps are usually painless, although some may produce a prickling sensation when touched. A mammogram can often detect a lump before it can be felt.
- A lump or a mass that is at least the size of a pea
- Pain or tenderness in the breast
- A change in the size or shape of the breast
- A change in the texture or appearance of the breast skin or in the nipple (becomes puckered, flattened, dimpled, scaly, red, marbled, or swollen)
- Itching or burning nipples, or ulceration of the nipples
- Bloody or clear discharge from the nipple
- A change in the look or feel of one isolated region of the breast
Diagnosing Breast Cancer
If you notice one or more of these symptoms, make an appointment with us. The sooner we can make a diagnosis, the better the chances we can successfully treat the cancer. We recommend performing regular breast self-exams in conjunction with attending yearly well-woman exams, as well as having yearly mammograms in women over 40.
The latest recommendation of the American Cancer Society suggests that starting at age 20, women should begin a regular routine of breast self-examination. Even though breast cancer is unlikely at a young age, it’s important for young women to get to know the normal look and feel of their breasts so that they can detect changes.
Perform a self-exam about 4 days after the last day of your period. With the help of a mirror, check for changes in the shape, color, or contour of your breasts and nipples, and look for any asymmetries. Then, feel for lumps or bumps both near the surface and deeper into the tissue in your breasts and underarms. It’s usually easiest to perform this part of the self-exam in the shower. If you see any nipple discharge or notice any lumps, it’s imperative that you see your doctor.
Mammograms are considered the most effective cancer screening method, since they can detect most lumps about two years earlier than they could be felt with a self-exam.
The American Cancer Society recommends that women between the ages of 40 and 75 have yearly mammograms. Though, if you’re at a higher risk for breast cancer, your doctor may recommend you start mammograms earlier. The important thing to note is only you and your doctor should decide how often you should be screened.
Breast cancer can only be diagnosed for certain with a biopsy. This is typically performed via needle aspiration or through surgical removal of the tissue.
Treatment for Breast Cancer
Treatment regimens for breast cancer are highly individualized based on your personal and medical history, the type of cancer, which stage your cancer has reached, and your family planning needs. Common therapies for treating breast cancer typically include one or a combination of these treatments:
Most of the time it is recommended to surgically remove the tumor. Your surgeon may recommend a lumpectomy, partial mastectomy, or complete mastectomy in one or both breasts. If you wish, you may be able to have your breasts reconstructed at a later time for cosmetic reasons.
Radiation refers to a few different types of therapies that involve directing high-energy rays at the affected area to kill cancerous cells. It’s usually recommended in conjunction with surgery to lower the chances that the cancer will relapse. Radiation can also target cancer when it has spread outside the breasts.
“Chemo” is a type of systemic therapy that targets all cancerous cells in the body by means of intravenous or orally-administered drugs. Chemotherapy can be very hard on the body, so patients typically undergo several rounds followed by periods of recovery.
Certain types of breast cancer are worsened by the presence of estrogen. There are therapies available to suppress the production of estrogen in the body, helping to reduce the risk of cancer spreading or coming back after surgery.
Drugs that target the specific genetic characteristics of cancerous cells are known as targeted therapies. There are several drugs on the market and they work in widely different ways. Targeted therapy is usually gentler on the body than chemotherapy, but the two therapies are most successfully used together.