According to recent statistics regarding medical conditions specific to women, one in eight women over the age of 30 will develop breast cancer over the course of their lifetime. Just a few decades ago, a diagnosis of breast cancer meant a significantly shortened life span for the woman receiving such a dire diagnosis. Today, however, breast cancer is an entirely treatable illness that has a nearly 100 percent cure rate when caught in its early stages. Advances in detection technology, chemotherapeutic and radiation techniques and surgical procedures have given women who have breast cancer powerfully viable reasons for expecting a full recovery as well as the ability to lead a full and healthy life following a breast cancer diagnosis.
What Exactly is Breast Cancer? Insight into the Disease and Its Stages of Development
Breast cancer usually originates within the lobules (tissues within the breast that supply milk to ducts during lactation) or in the interior lining of these ducts. Ductal carcinoma and lobular carcinoma are the most frequently diagnosed breast cancers, which are both responsible for producing the characteristic lumps or nodules that may indicate the presence of breast cancer.
Breast cancer is similar to other cancers in that a highly complex interaction occurs between a genetic susceptibility inherent in the patient’s cells and external factors. Unlike normal cells that divide, cease dividing and eventually experience apoptosis (literally, cell “suicide”), cancerous cells divide uncontrollably, unable to stop reproducing because of the abnormality arising from several risk factors experienced by breast cancer patients. In addition to the inability to stop dividing, cancer cells cannot adhere to each other nor can they remain where they should in the body. This is why cancer spreads so easily if it is not caught in the early stages by surgical removal or radiation/chemical therapy.
Breast cancer development is categorized by implementing the TNM system. This Classification of Malignant Tumors staging system is based on the size of the tumor (T), the extent of the lymph nodes involvement with the cancer (N) and how far the cancer has spread (metastasized) from its original location of development (M).
Why Some Women Get Breast Cancer
Two risk factors that rate high on the list of risk factors associated with breast cancer are being female and having a family history of women with breast cancer. Research in the genetics of breast cancer has found that up to 30 percent of women diagnosed with breast cancer have a close relative who also suffered or is suffering from breast cancer. Scientists have identified several gene mutations responsible for breast cancer, especially the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. When these two genes are passed on without defects, they actually produce a protein that helps protect us from cancer. However, defective BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes do just the opposite, making women who have these genes greatly susceptible to breast cancer.
Other risks found to promote the possibility of developing breast cancer include:
For women who have a family history of breast cancer, avoiding heavy drinking, smoking, being overweight and engaging in a healthy lifestyle may significantly reduce the risk of developing breast cancer. Alternately, some women may carry defective BRCA1 and 2 genes and never get breast cancer, even if they do nothing to minimize these risks. Research into the mechanics of gene expression, or how and why some genes get “turned on” while others remain dormant, is fairly new but scientists think that environmental factors such as the ones listed above as well as extreme and chronic emotional states such as stress, anxiety and depression may also influence gene expression and the development of invasive breast cancer.
Symptoms of Breast Cancer
Stage 0 and sometimes Stage I breast cancer is asymptotic. Women who neglect to get regular mammograms or at least perform thorough self-examinations every two to three months may not know they have breast cancer until a lump is large enough to be papable.
Cancerous lumps are not always located in breast tissue. They may also be felt in the armpit area as well due to the presence of lymph nodes that enlarge when affected by cancer cells.
Some women may experience changes in the appearance of the breast or nipple. Dimpling, itching, tingling and noticeable redness in addition to a clear or yellowish discharge from nipple are common signs of breast cancer that need immediate attention by a physician. These symptoms indicate a dermatological condition known as Paget’s disease and are definitely associated with the potential development of breast cancer.
Advanced breast cancer presents more conspicuous symptoms such as breast pain, weight loss, swelling in the armpit closest to the breast with cancer, ulcerous lesions and bone pain affecting the breastplate. Generally, women diagnosed with advanced breast cancer (Stage IV) have either neglected to address symptoms out of fearing the worst or did not know a lump existed because they failed to self-examine or visit their doctor for an examination or mammogram.
Benefits of a Mammogram
Mammograms are capable of detecting breast cancer in its earliest stages when no symptoms are present and small tumors cannot be felt. Mammograms provide magnetic resonance imaging pictures of internal breast tissue so that radiologists can examine the pictures for any abnormalities in the tissue and lymph nodes.
The primary benefit of having regular mammograms is its ability to detect breast cancer before the disease spreads into the lymph nodes, bones and organs. Most early stage cancers can be treated with chemotherapy or radiation therapy while later stage breast cancers may require surgery to remove cancerous tumors, followed by a regimen of radiation or chemotherapy.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control recommends that women between the ages of 50 and 74 get a mammogram every year. However, for women who have mothers, grandmothers or aunts with breast cancer, the obvious genetic component demands that they should monitor their health more closely by having regular mammograms before age 50. Self-examinations are also important to women who may have inherited defective BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes.
Breast Cancer Myths
New discoveries and advances are made every year regarding the early detection and successful treatment of breast cancer. Increasing knowledge concerning the genetic component of breast cancer is also helping women take measures to decrease their risk of ever having a breast cancer diagnosis. In addition to traditional chemotherapies, radiation therapies and hormone therapies, when applicable, breast cancer patients also have viable options that include lumpectomies, mastectomies and targeted drug treatments intended to eliminate cancer cell abnormalities. For example, drugs such as Perjeta and Kadcyla prevent production of proteins that promote cancer cell growth in patients suffering from metastatic breast cancer. When used in combination with radiation/chemotherapy, targeted drug treatments are giving late-stage breast cancer patients a more positive prognoses and better quality of life.
Early detection through mammograms and self-examination as well as avoiding bad lifestyle habits that contribute to poor health are keys to beating breast cancer. Remain vigilant of signs that possibly indicate the development of breast cancer and don’t hesitate to visit your physician if you experience symptoms indicative of breast cancer or your dermatologist if you notice extra-mammary signs and symptoms.
Resources offering more information about breast cancer: