What is Breast Cancer?
Breast cancer, a condition where cells begin to multiply abnormally within the breast, occurs most commonly in women. The rapidly growing cells typically form into a tumor, which can be detected on an x-ray or be felt with a physical exam. Breast cancer statistics show:
- Along with skin cancer, breast cancer is one of the most commonly diagnosed cancers in women
- In January 2020, there were 3.5 million women in the U.S. with some type of breast cancer history
- The risk for breast cancer almost doubles if a woman has a mother, sister, or daughter who has been diagnosed with breast cancer
Although these statistics should be taken into consideration, new advances in treatment and early detection efforts have led to a decrease in breast cancer death rates since 1989.
What are the Signs of Breast Cancer?
The signs and symptoms of breast cancer are vital for every woman to be aware of, because early detection can curb the spread of breast cancer. The early signs of breast cancer may appear within the breast of the armpit.
The most common signs of breast cancer are:
- Pain in the armpits or breast that doesn’t follow the menstrual cycle pattern
- Sunken or inverted nipples
- Discharge from the nipples, sometimes containing blood
- A change in the size or shape of a breast
- Peeling or scaling of the skin on the breast or nipple
It’s important to note that most of the lumps found in the breast are not cancerous. However, in order to confirm whether a lump is cancerous or not, a visit to the doctor is warranted when signs of breast cancer are found.
Doing a breast exam at home on a monthly basis is recommended as a way to remain on guard for signs of breast cancer.
Causes and Risk Factors
A family history remains one of the most significant risk factors for breast cancer.
For example, when there are mutations in the genes BRCA1 and BRCA2—which repairs DNA repairs in the body—it allows rapidly growing cancer cells to multiply. The BRCA1 and BRCA2 can be passed down through generations, making it more likely that breast cancer will run in the family.
Environmental factors can influence overall cancer risk, including breast cancer.
For example, the ultraviolet (UV) light from the sun can damage DNA and cause cells to multiply. Other factors like environmental pollutants and chemicals can also increase risk for breast cancer.
The risk for breast cancer increases with age. For example, the risk for a 70 year old developing breast cancer is almost 4% greater than that of a 20 year old.
Estrogen and Hormone Therapy
An increased exposure to estrogen can be a breast cancer risk. When a female experiences their first menstrual cycle at a young age, their body is exposed to estrogen more often and for longer periods than a female who had their first period at a later age. Therefore, women who had their first period at an early age have a higher risk for breast cancer.
On the other hand, women who undergo menopause at a later age may also have a higher risk of breast cancer, due to prolonged estrogen exposure.
Hormone treatment may also (slightly) increase the risk of breast cancer. Hormone treatment may include hormonal birth control or hormone replacement therapies.
Self-Exam and Mammograms
Although most breast lumps aren’t cancerous, they may still be called tumors. These tumors can be benign (non-cancerous) or malignant (cancerous).
Determining whether a lump is benign or malignant is the first step to diagnosing breast cancer, so it’s vital to identify any lumps as soon as possible. In order to detect breast changes, a monthly breast self-exam is recommended for all women.
40% of diagnosed breast cancers are found by women who felt a lump, which underscores just how important breast self-exams are.
A mammogram is an x-ray of the breasts and can spot lumps that may be undetectable through a breast self-exam. The American Cancer Society suggests
annual mammograms for women ages 45–54. For women who are 55 and older, a mammogram is recommended every two years.
Women who are under the age of 45 and over the age of 70 should consult with their healthcare professional to determine how often a mammogram should be performed.
Treatment options for breast cancer include both local treatments (targeting the cancer site specifically) and systemic treatments (affecting the whole body).
Local treatments include surgery or radiation treatments. Systemic treatments may include hormone therapy, immunotherapy, and chemotherapy options.
The course of treatment chosen typically depends on the stage of the cancer and the health of the person affected.
When to See a Doctor
Spotting a lump or breast abnormality doesn’t mean a cancer diagnosis is inevitable, and most lumps turn out to be benign.
However, reporting a breast abnormality to a doctor within a week or two of spotting it can help determine the best approach. Because breast cancer can be life-threatening, it’s best to err on the side of caution.