Overview – What is it?
Breast cancer is a type of cancer that starts in the breasts due to the rapid and uncontrollable growth of malignant (cancerous) cells. Even though it mostly affects women, men are also at a risk of getting breast cancer. Some of the risk factors for this type of cancer are having excessive production of certain hormones, exposure to radiation and family history.
A woman with breast cancer can experience change in the size of the breast, a lump in the breast and an abnormal discharge from the nipple.
It can be diagnosed through a breast examination, scanning of the breast, and using a biopsy, among other methods.
To treat breast cancer, surgery can be done together with other treatments like chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
The risk for this cancer can be reduced by not smoking, eating healthy and maintaining a healthy body weight, among other preventive measures.
Causes – What causes it?
Like most cancers, the exact cause of breast cancer is not known. However, there are some risk factors that can increase the chance of having this type of cancer and these are:
Risk factors for women
- Exposure to radiation especially as a result of treatment for other cancers can increase a woman’s risk of getting breast cancer.
- Certain hormones like the estrogen hormone, which aids in multiplication of cells, can increase the risk of getting breast cancer in women. Hormone treatments such as hormone replacement therapy and oral birth control pills can increase the risk of getting breast cancer due to the increased estrogen levels in the body.
- Excessive alcohol intake.
- Personal history with breast cancer or other breast conditions, or a family history with breast cancer, can increase the risk of getting this cancer.
- Exposure to certain carcinogens and endocrine disruptors in the workplace.
- Being obese or having excess body weight, especially after menopause, can increase the risk of getting breast cancer because of the high estrogen levels.
- High density breast tissue is another factor that can increase the risk for breast cancer.
Risk factors for men
- Exposure to radiation either in the workplace or through treatment of other cancers.
- Old age, especially for men aged 68 years and older.
- Obesity or overweightness, because the androgens are converted into estrogen which increases the risk for breast cancer.
- Exposure to estrogen through taking estrogen-related drugs, for example, those used in hormone therapy for prostate cancer.
- Family history with breast cancer also puts a man at a higher risk of developing breast cancer.
- Certain diseases such as severe liver disease like cirrhosis and disease of the testicles increase the risk for this cancer.
- Klinefelter’s syndrome which is a genetic disorder that affects both the cognitive and physical development in men and can lead to abnormalities such as abnormal growth of the testicles.
Symptoms – What do you feel?
In most cases breast cancer symptoms begin to manifest in the late stages and therefore, most people tend to realize they have breast cancer when it has already spread. Some of the symptoms that people with breast cancer may experience are:
- Lump in the breast
- Nipple inversion
- Peeling of skin over the breast
- Change in size, shape and appearance of the breast
- Abnormal discharge from the nipple
- Redness of the skin over the breast or nipple
- Pain in the armpit or breast
- Rash around the nipple
Diagnosis – How do you diagnose it?
- Breast examination: This usually takes place during the initial consultation, during which a person explains their symptoms to the doctor and the doctor feels for any abnormal growth in the breast and checks for other symptoms that can be identified during a breast examination such as discharge from the nipple.
- Ultrasound: This test uses soundwaves to get images of the breast structure to determine whether the lump is a solid mass or fluid cyst.
- Mammogram: This involves using an x-ray machine to get images of the inside of the breast which help in identifying any abnormalities.
- Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI): It is also used to get images of the breast; however, it gives more detailed images as compared to other imaging tests.
- Biopsy: This involves getting samples of the tissue from the lump or removing the entire lump and looking at it under a microscope to determine whether there are cancerous cells or non-cancerous cells present.
Treatment – How do you treat it?
- Surgery: This is done to remove the tumour or the entire breast and can be followed by other treatments. The different breast cancer surgeries, depending on the stage of the cancer or how far the cancer has spread, are as follows:
- Lumpectomy: This is a breast-conserving surgery that involves removing the cancer tumour and some of the surrounding normal tissue from the breast, depending on the size of the tumour.
- Lymph node biopsy or dissection: It involves removing lymph nodes near the breasts that the cancer has spread to or is likely to spread to.
- Mastectomy: This is basically the removal of the entire breast in a case where the cancer has spread to most parts of the breast.
- Breast reconstructive surgery: After mastectomy, breast reconstruction can be done to improve the appearance of the breast.
- Radiotherapy: This involves using high-energy beams to kill the cancer cells externally using x-ray, or internally using radiation pellets.
- Brachytherapy: This is a type of radiation that uses radioactive material implanted in the body which allows doctors to deliver high doses of radiation to the affected area of the body.
- Chemotherapy: This treatment uses a combination of anti-cancer drugs that help in killing the cancer cells.
- Targeted therapy: This involves using drugs to target and destroy cancer cells without causing damage to the normal cells around them.
- Hormone therapy: This treatment involves using drugs to prevent cancer cells in the body from receiving the hormones they require to continue growing. It is mostly used to treat cancer that is wide-spread and that cannot be treated using surgery or radiation.
- Immunotherapy: This uses drugs to make the body aware of the presence of cancer cells in the body, improve the body’s immunity and making it able to fight the cancer.
Prevention – How do you prevent it?
Prevention of breast cancer involves reducing the risk factors that lead to an increased chance of getting breast cancer. Some of the ways through which you can prevent yourself from developing this type of cancer include:
- Eating a healthy diet rich in vegetables and fruits and eating less processed foods and red meat.
- Limiting postmenopausal hormone therapy for women.
- Avoiding excessive alcohol intake.
- Maintaining a healthy body weight.
- Remaining physically active by exercising regularly.
- Avoiding exposure to radiation.
- Getting regular screening for breast cancer.
- Women at a high risk of developing breast cancer can have their breasts removed before the cancer develops or have chemoprevention which involves taking drugs to block estrogen hormone which can lead to breast cancer.