Breast cancer is a malignant tumor that starts in the cells of the breast, either in cells that line the ducts that carry milk to the nipples (ductal cancer) and/or in cells that line the lobules, which are glands involved in milk production.
A malignant tumor is cancerous. A group of cancer cells that can grow into (invade) surrounding tissues or metastasize to distant areas of the body via the lymphatic system (lymphatic vessels and lymph nodes), such as the liver and bone. If cancer cells have spread to the surrounding lymph nodes, there is a much higher probability that the tumor has entered the bloodstream and metastasized to other parts of the body.
Breast cancer can also be benign which means that it will not be life threatening and can usually be removed. In this case the cancer cells do not invade adjacent tissues or spread to other parts of the body. Fibrocystic tissue, fibroadenomas and benign breast disease come under this. Mostly this disease occurs in women, but men can get it too.
There are many risk factors associated with breast cancer. Simply being a woman is the main risk factor for developing breast cancer. Age is another key risk factor – the risk of developing breast cancer increases with growing age. Breast cancer can also be hereditary, resulting directly from gene defects (called mutations) inherited from a parent. The most common cause of hereditary breast cancer is an inherited mutation in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes.
Menstrual period, previous chest radiation, dense breast cancer and some lifestyle related factors like having children, birth control, and a hormone therapy after menopause, breast feeding, overweight or even alcohol use are considered risk factors for developing breast cancer.
Prevention & Early Detection
Risk of breast cancer can be lowered by reducing all the risk factors discussed above. Physical activity, body weight and diet have all been linked to breast cancer, so these might be areas where the patient can focus. Other than lifestyle changes, the most important action a woman can take is towards early detection. It will not prevent breast cancer, but it can definitely help in finding out when the probability of successful treatment is greatest.
Breast cancer screening includes three methods of early detection:
1) Clinical breast exams :
A clinical breast exam (CBE) is performed by the clinician or other health professionals and involves a systematic examination of the breast skin and tissue. The health professional looks for signs and symptoms or if any changes occur, including development of a lump or swelling, skin irritation or dimpling, nipple pain or retraction (turning inward), redness or scaliness of the nipple or breast skin, or a discharge other than breast milk. Special attention is given to the shape and texture of the breasts, location of any lumps, and whether such lumps are attached to the skin or to deeper tissues.
2) Breast self-exams:
A breast self-exam (BSE) is performed by the woman herself and involves a similar examination as the CBE of the breast skin and tissue based on palpations by her hands. The woman has to examine the look and the feel of her breasts as well as any signs, symptoms or changes to the breasts.
3) Mammography :
Mammography is an X-ray examination of the breast that has the ability to detect a cancer in the breast when it is quite small, long before it may be felt by breast examination. A mammogram is an x-ray of the breast that uses very low levels of radiation. The images capture calcifications (benign) and masses, which include benign cysts that are fluid-filled, benign solid tumors and cancer. To confirm that an abnormal mass is cancer, a biopsy is undertaken and may be a fine-needle biopsy, core biopsy or surgical biopsy.
Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in women but can be cured. In our next post we will look at some of the most popular treatment methods being used across the world for curing breast cancer.