Breast cancer is the second leading cause of death among women in the United States. It is the most common female cancer and 231, 840 cases are diagnosed each year. While rare, men can also suffer from breast cancer. The statistics are sobering at best. If you are facing breast cancer yourself or a loved one, the following information can help you understand this disease and the importance of treatment.
Doctors still don’t know the exact cause of breast cancer. They do know that is happens because some of the cells in the breast grow too fast. These extra cells form a mass in the breast. This usually starts in the glands (ducts) that produce milk. It can also start in the tissue around the glands (lobules) or other areas of the breast.
There are factors that have to do with hormones, environmental exposure, and lifestyle that raise the chances for breast cancer. Also, if you have a family history you are at higher risk. Breast cancer has a very strong genetic link and this is a large clue for researchers, but research as to why some people get it and some don’t continues.
Breast Cancer Risk Factors
There are a lot of risk factors for breast cancer. If you have one or more of the following, make sure you do your self- exams monthly, get a mammogram yearly, and possibly consider genetic testing. Here is the list:
Family History. Mom, sister, daughter, and even an aunt.
Genetics. You may have an inherited breast cancer gene. These are the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes.
Age. As you get older, the chances of getting breast cancer increase.
Exposure to Radiation. Radiation directed at the chest early in life raises the risk of breast cancer.
Being Overweight. If your weight is in the range of obesity, your risk is higher.
Early Monthly Periods. If you started menstruating before you turned 12.
Later Menopause. If menopause is delayed, your risk goes up.
Delayed Childbirth. If you had your first baby after the age of 35 the risk of breast cancer goes up.
No Pregnancies. If you have never been pregnant, there is a higher risk of breast cancer.
No Breastfeeding. If you never breastfed, you have an increased risk.
Using Hormone Replacement. Hormone replacement used after menopause increases the risk.
Alcohol Use. Using alcohol raises your risk of breast cancer.
Breast Cancer Symptoms
The signs of breast cancer are not always evident until the disease is advanced. This is why monthly self-breast exams are important. Here are the most common symptoms:
A lump in your breast
Change in breast shape or size
Change in breast skin (orange peel appearance)
Redness and inflammation
Dimples in the breast tissue
Flaky nipple skin
An open lesion on the breast
Bloody nipple discharge
Diagnosing Breast Cancer
If you find a lump or any abnormality in one or both breasts, you need to see your doctor right away. They will most likely perform the following tests:
History and Physical. You will need to give your complete medical and family history, especially if you have a personal or family history of breast cancer.
The doctor will do a thorough check of both breasts for lumps. The lymph nodes are usually checked for firmness and swelling.
Mammogram. A mammogram will be ordered to check the lump. This is usually a routine x-ray to check annually. It is often the first test ordered when a breast lump is found.
Ultrasound. The doctor may choose to do an ultrasound to get a better look at the lump. The sound waves used can help the doctor tell if your lump is just a cyst or a mass that is solid. An “ultrasound guided biopsy” checks the fluids in the mass. The doctor inserts a needle during the ultrasound and take a sample, which is then sent to a lab for analysis.
MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging). An MRI can look deeper into the tissues of the breast. The doctor may want you to have a dye injection to better outline any abnormalities.
Breast Cancer Treatment
The treatment for breast cancer you receive will depend on what stage the cancer is at. You will be sent to an oncologist (cancer doctor) and they will use either systemic or local treatments or a combination of both. Here are the treatments:
Surgical Treatment. If the disease is at an early stage, you may only have a lumpectomy. This involves removing only cancerous tissue from the breast. If the disease is at a later stage, you may need a mastectomy. This is total removal of one or both breasts. Side-effects of surgery usually involve the same issues as with any other surgery including; risk of bleeding, risk of cancer spreading, infection, and recovery time. The emotional side-effects of a mastectomy can involve body image issues.
Radiation Treatment. Radiation can be given topically to the area where the cancer is, or internally by taking radiation capsules orally. They can even “super heat” the cancer cells to kill them off. You most likely will have radiation after surgery. Side-effects of radiation usually involve the skin such as; itching, burning, redness, and peeling skin.
Chemotherapy. Chemotherapy is the use of strong medications that kill off cancer cells. This may be used alone, or as a third line of combination therapy after mastectomy and radiation are completed. Side-effects include; nausea, vomiting, hair loss, severe fatigue, and absence of periods.
Hormonal Treatments. Certain hormones like; Tamoxifen (Nolvadex) or Anastrozole (Arimidex) counteract estrogen in the body to prevent cancer growth. Side-effects include; vaginal dryness, hot flashes, any symptom associated with lack of estrogen.
Biological Treatments. These treatments are immune system “helpers” that give the body’s own immune system what it needs to fight the cancer itself. These include; trastuzumab (Herceptin) and lapatinib (Tykerb). These are also used after treatments above are completed to help completely clear the body of cancer.
First, we have to understand cancer. Cancer is the abnormal growth of cells that form into a tumor or mass. Tumors can either be benign (non-cancerous), or malignant (cancerous), and breast cancer is when there is a cancerous tumor in the breast tissue.
This tumor can grow outside the breast tissue if it is found too late or left untreated. It can then spread throughout the body, lymph nodes and blood vessels. It is most common for breast cancer to move into the lymph nodes in the armpit, neck, and chest. When breast cancer becomes very advanced, it goes into the liver, lungs, and bones.
Even if breast cancer is successfully treated, it has a high rate of recurrence.
Chinese or Ayurvedic Medicine. Chinese medicine traditionally uses herbs and acupuncture and Ayurvedic medicine from India uses a combination of herbal, yoga, and massage therapies.
Mind-Body-Soul Therapies. These can help you through symptoms and side-effects of cancer treatment. They are based on focusing inward to help your body heal itself through; meditation, art, music, guided imagery, reiki, qigong, hypnosis, and prayer.
Natural Remedies. Naturopathic style medicine combines herbal remedies with supplements, and proper nutrition.
Note: To date, no research has proven that alternative medicine can cure cancer. Please check with your doctor before starting any alternative therapies.
If you have an increased risk for breast cancer or family history of breast cancer, take these steps now to lessen the risk:
Keep your weight in check
Limit hormone therapies, especially estrogens
Breast feed your babies
Avoid chemical exposures
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