Overview and Facts
Breast cancer occurs when cells in the breast experience uncontrolled growth, causing cancer in the tissue of the breast. Breast cancer statistics report that over the course of a lifetime, about 1 in 8 women, or 13% of the U.S. population, can expect to develop breast cancer. However, breast cancer risk for each individual may be higher or lower than that. Risk factors of breast cancer are determined by many different factors such as lifestyle, family history, age, reproductive history, environment and more.
There are two main types of breast cancer:
Ductal carcinoma: This is the most common type of breast cancer. Ductal carcinoma starts in the cells that line the milk ducts in the breasts, which are the cells that move milk from the breast to the nipple.
Lobular carcinoma: Less common than ductal carcinoma, it starts in the lobules, glands in the breast that produce milk.
There are several other less common types of breast cancer. For example, inflammatory breast cancer is a breast cancer in which the breast becomes swollen because the cancer has spread to the skin of the breast. In this type of cancer, breast lumps may not be present.
Signs and Symptoms
Breast cancer in its early stages does not usually produce obvious symptoms. Since there are few signs of breast cancer early on, it is important to do monthly self-breast exams as well breast exams from a doctor.
Once the breast cancer does start to grow, there are signs that indicate you could have breast cancer. However, some of these symptoms could be a result of something non-cancerous, so it’s important to see a doctor if you experience any of these breast cancer signs:
- Breast lumps or lump near the armpit
- Fluid coming from the nipple
- Change in the size, shape or feel of the breast or nipple
If the breast cancer has advanced, further symptoms at this stage may include breast pain, swelling in the arm next to the breast with cancer, weight loss and skin ulcers.
Causes and Diagnosis
Breast cancer is caused by a genetic abnormality, but that doesn’t mean all breast cancers are due to family history. Just 5-10% of cancers are caused by a genetic abnormality that is inherited. Close to 90% of breast cancers are caused by genetic abnormalities that happen as a result of the aging process and the ‘wear and tear’ of life.
There are steps that individuals can take to stay as healthy as possible and reduce breast cancer risk, but there are also certain risk factors that you cannot change. Below is a list of potential factors that could increase your breast cancer risk:
Family history – Between 20-30% of women with breast cancer have a family history of it.
Age – Most cases of advanced breast cancer occur in women age 50 and over, so as you get older, your risk increases.
Gender – Women are 100 times more likely to develop breast cancer.
Genes – Certain people are born with genes that make them more prone to developing breast cancer. Women with gene defects in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes have an 80% chance of getting breast cancer sometime during their life.
Menstrual cycle – Women who get their periods before age 12 or went through menopause after age 55 have an increased breast cancer risk.
- Drinking more than 1 – 2 glasses of alcohol a day
- Never having children or having them only after age 30
- Having hormone replacement therapy for several years or more
- Receiving radiation treatment in the chest area as a child or young adult
Tests and Treatment Options
There are many different tests and analyses that a doctor can do to determine if you have breast cancer if so, whether it is non-invasive or invasive. Some breast cancer tests include:
Breast cancer screening: This is when a doctor looks for breast cancer before a person has even experienced any symptoms of breast cancer. Doing a breast cancer screening helps to find cancer at an early stage, which makes the breast cancer treatment much easier.
Mammography: A mammogram, or x-ray of the breast, is taken to help identify the breast lump. Screening mammograms can be given to women who do not show signs of breast cancer. Diagnostic mammograms are given to women who suspect they have a lump in the breast. Doctors recommend that women age 40 and older have a mammogram every 1-2 years.
Breast MRI: Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans help to identify breast lumps and assess any abnormal areas seen on a mammogram. They are not used for routine breast screenings, though breast cancer research is being conducted to determine if an MRI is valuable for screening young women at high risk for breast cancer.
Stage I: Invasive breast cancer, meaning the breast cancer cells are breaking through to nearby tissue. In Stage I, the cancer is smaller than two centimeters and no lymph nodes are involved
Stage II: This is a stage of invasive breast cancer that is divided into two subcategories, IIA and IIB.
Stage IIA: The breast cancer is a tumor smaller than two centimeters and has spread to lymph nodes; or it is a tumor between two and five centimeters that has not spread to lymph nodes
Stage IIB: The breast cancer is a tumor larger than five centimeters that has not spread to lymph nodes; or it is a tumor that is between two and five centimeters that has spread to lymph nodes
Stage III: This is a stage of invasive breast cancer that is divided into three subcategories, IIIA, IIIB and IIIC.
Stage IIIA: Also called locally advanced breast cancer, this stage describes breast cancer that has a tumor larger than five centimeters and has spread to lymph nodes; or any size tumor in which cancerous lymph nodes are clumping together or sticking to nearby tissue
Stage IIIB: The breast cancer is a tumor or any size that has spread to the chest wall or skin. Inflammatory breast cancer is at least Stage IIIB.
Stage IIIC: The breast cancer is a tumor of any size that has spread to chest wall and/or skin of breast and invaded lymph nodes near collarbone or breastbone
Stage IV: This stage of breast cancer is when a tumor, no matter the size, has spread to other organs of the body such as lungs, brain, liver or bones.
According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), the five-year survival rates for persons with breast cancer that is appropriately treated are:
- 100% for Stage 0
- 100% for Stage I
- 92% for Stage IIA
- 81% for Stage IIB
- 67% for Stage IIIA
- 54% for Stage IIIB
- 20% for Stage IV
Treatment of breast cancer depends on the type and stage of the cancer. Also, a doctor would determine whether the cancer is sensitive to particular hormones.
Here are some of the common types of breast cancer treatments:
Mastectomy: This is a surgery that requires removing the breast in order to rid the body of the cancerous cells
Lumpectomy: A surgeon just removes the cancerous area and a margin of surrounding normal tissue.
Chemotherapy: This is a method that uses medicines to destroy any and all cancer cells in the body. Chemotherapy is a systemic therapy, meaning it goes through the body and affects the entire body.
Radiation Therapy: This is a highly effected, targeted way of destroying cancerous tissue that may still be around after breast cancer surgery. Radiation therapy can reduce the risk of breast cancer returning by close to 70%. This is a local treatment for breast cancer, meaning side effects are limited to the treated area.
Many people use a combination of treatments. For example, they may have a lumpectomy followed by radiation therapy to ensure all cancer cells are destroyed.
Helpful Tips and Home Remedies
Although many breast cancer risk factors cannot be controlled or changed, there are things you can do to minimize your risk:
- Follow a healthy diet
- Exercise to maintain a healthy weight
- Do regular breast self-exams and report anything even slightly abnormal to your doctor
- Women age 40 and older should have a mammogram every 1-2 years
- Avoid smoking and excessive drinking