Breast cancer is one of the most common types of cancer among women. Women have a 1 in 9 chance of developing breast cancer in their lifetime. This type of cancer is the result of uncontrolled multiplication and disorganized growth of abnormal cells within the breast. There are several types of breast cancer depending on the cells affected.
The exact cause behind the transformation of normal breast cells to cancerous cells is not well understood. There are however, certain modifiable and non-modifiable risks factors that predispose one to developing breast cancer. These include:
- Gender: 99% of breast cancers occur in women
- Advanced age
- Personal history of breast cancer: increases risk of developing cancer in the other breast
- Family history of breast cancer in a first degree relative (mother, sister, daughter)
- Early onset of menstruation (before 12 years of age)
- Late menopause (after age 50)
- Having first child after the age of 30
- Never having breastfed
- Being 50 years and older and not having had children
- Prior radiation to the chest area before age 30
- Being overweight (by more than 5 kg) or obese if 50 years of age and older
- Not being physically active
- Alcohol consumption (limit intake to 1 drink a day)
- Hormone therapy (oestrogen plus progestin for more than 5 years)
Signs and Symptoms
The most common signs and symptoms of breast cancer are:
- Palpable mass in the breast
- Abnormal mammography without a palpable mass
- Persistent breast pain
- Nipple discharge consisting of fluid or blood
- Change in breast size or shape
- Nipple inversion or skin dimpling
- Redness or mild flaking of the breast skin
To ensure the early detection of breast cancer, the following measures must be taken before the appearance of any signs and symptoms. This will facilitate treatment and increase one's chances for complete recovery. Firstly, it is strongly recommended that women play close attention to any abnormalities or changes in their breasts by palpating and regularly observing both breasts. Secondly, a clinical examination, carried out by a health care professional should also be done every 2 years, after the age of 40. And lastly, a screening mammography is recommended every 2 years (at least) for women between the ages of 50 and 69 years.
The above-mentioned signs and symptoms may be caused by an illness other than cancer. Tests therefore play an important role in establishing a definite diagnosis. The first step is a diagnostic mammogram. Its role is to evaluate changes within the breast tissue. An imaging study may then be ordered. This provides a more detailed analysis of the tissues, organs and bones. Then, a biopsy is usually necessary to establish and confirm whether it is cancer. A biopsy involves taking a sample of fluid or abnormal tissue for microscopic observation. And lastly, the physician may order more comprehensive laboratory tests to learn more about the cancer and whether it has spread to other organs. All these tests will be used to determine the best treatment options for you.
Breast cancer can be treated in one of two ways. It is either treated locally, by targeting the tumour directly, or generally, by targeting the entire body to prevent metastases. Surgery and radiation are used for local treatment. Depending on the size of the tumour, surgery may be needed to remove the entire breast or just the tumour. Then, radiation can be given to prevent local recurrence (meaning the formation of another tumour) caused by the destruction of the cancer cells.
Chemotherapy, occasionally added to hormone therapy, allows for a more general treatment. Chemotherapy may be administered if one or several nodes are affected or if the cancer has spread. For its part, hormone therapy may be used if tests reveal that the tumour is dependent on hormones to survive and spread. This type of treatment stops the hormones from reaching the cancer cells thereby preventing further growth.
For more information:
Canadian Cancer Society