Understanding Breast Cancer

What is breast cancer?

It is a disease of the breast that occurs when healthy breast cells become abnormal, grow out of control, and form tumours. It can begin in the milk ducts or lobules of the breast. Iti can sometimes spread to other parts of the body. About 1 in 8 women have a lifetime risk of getting breast cancer. For men, the risk is 1 in 1000.

Normal structure of the breast

Breasts are made up of fatty tissue. They contain small chambers called lobules where breast milk is made. The milk travels through tiny channels called ducts to reach the nipples. Lymph nodes are located inside your breast and under your arms. They are connected by lymph vessels and they help your body fight disease.

The anatomy of the female breast Photo Credit: Terese Winslow

Signs and symptoms of breast cancer

  • Lump(s) in the breast or armpit
  • Change in breast shape or size
  • Nipple changes (caved in/pulled out)
  • Nipple discharge (clear or bloody)
  • Redness of breast skin
  • Dimple of breast skin (appears like the orange fruit skin)

Risk factors for breast cancer

  • Older age
  • Dense breasts
  • Having breast cancer before
  • Parent or sibling with breast cancer
  • Inherited genetic mutations
  • Alcohol use
  • Overweight or obesity

Screening for breast cancer

This includes:

  • Self breast examination – You can check your own breast about the same time each month. Feel each breast and armpit and look for the signs of breast cancer previously highlighted.
  • Clinical breast examination by your doctor
  • Screening mammography
Positioning of the breast for mammography Photo Credit: Cleveland Clinic

Diagnosing breast cancer

  • Diagnostic mammography – This is employed when abnormalities are seen on a screening mammogram.
  • Breast ultrasound scan – This can identify if a suspicious lump is fluid-filled or solid. A fluid-filled lump is often benign and a cyst while a solid one may be cancerous or a fibrous growth.
  • Breast magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) – This shows more details than the mammogram.
  • Breast biopsy – This involves removal of a small amount of tissue from the breast. There are various types of biopsy. A specialist doctor called a pathologist will analyze the breast tissue sample by looking at it under the microscope and doing specific tests. Their report will inform the diagnosis of cancer. The result of this test helps the doctor to choose your treatment.

Stages of breast cancer

The factors that determine the stages of breast cancer include:

  • Size of the cancer
  • Location of the cancer
  • Spread to other areas in your body

The stages are 0 – IV.

Treatment of breast cancer

Breast cancer treatment depends on the stage and type of the cancer. Treatment often involves various specialists including the surgeon, radiotherapist, pathologist and so on.

The main treatment options are:

  • Surgery
  • Radiation therapy
  • Chemotherapy
  • Hormone therapy
  • Targeted therapy
  • Combination treatments

What is metastatic breast cancer?

This is a type of cancer that has spread from the breast to other areas of the body. The most common areas are the liver, bones, lungs, and brain. Sadly, there is no cure for metastatic breast cancer and treatment is to prolong survival. Advanced treatment options have made it possible for people with metastatic breast cancer to live for up to 5 years and even more. Metastatic breast cancer treatment may include ongoing chemotherapy, hormone therapy, targeted therapy, and immunotherapy.

A word from HealthFacts to you

It is frightening to learn you have breast cancer. However, the information available can help you to receive timely, individualized and effective treatment that can give you the best chance of being cured. Always ask your doctor questions.

Till next time, stay informed and stay healthy!

Suggested Reading: 6 Breast Cancer myths you need to trash


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