How to tell if you have it?
Most of us know someone whose life has been affected by breast cancer. If it isn’t a relative or friend of ours than it is a relative or friend of someone we know. Thankfully, breast cancer survival rates have increased in recent due to advances in technology and the implementation of early screening processes. So, how do you know if you have it? What can you do to treat and prevent it?
Breast cancer is like all other cancers in that the cells in your body begin to grow abnormally. In this case, those cells happened to be located in your breasts. As the cells grow and multiply rapidly, they begin to accumulate, which forms a mass. Usually, if the mass is large enough, you’ll notice it as a lump in your breast. Cancer cells can spread to other parts of your body and this is known as metastasis. There are several different types of breast cancer, such as angiosarcoma, ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), inflammatory breast cancer, invasive lobular carcinoma, male breast cancer, Paget’s disease of the breast and recurrent breast cancer. Most often, breast cancer affects women and begin in the cells of the milk-producing ducts. It is the second most common cancer diagnosis for women in the United States, only preceded by skin cancer.
There is no specific cause, but it is thought to be related to your genes and environment. Only about 5 – 10% of breast cancers are linked to a genetic mutation that is passed down via reproduction. There are a number of these genes, but the two most common are breast cancer gene 1 (BRCA1) and breast cancer gene 2 (BRCA2). Even if you don’t have a family history of breast cancer, other factors can place you at risk. Being female is greater risk than being male and the chances of developing it increase as you age. If you have a history of problems with your breasts, such as atypical hyperplasia of the breast or had breast cancer previously, you are at greater risk. If you began your period under the age of 12 or don’t start menopause until you are older than what is typically expected, your risk level increases. If you have never been pregnant or have your first child after the age of 30, your chance of developing breast cancer rises. Being obese or drinking alcohol can increase your risk level. Signs that may indicate you have breast cancer include a lump or thickening in your breast that feels different from the surrounding area, your breast changes in size, shape or appearance, the skin over your breast changes (ex. dimpling), your nipple becomes inverted when it hasn’t before, the skin of your breast peels, has scales, crusting or flaking and/or the skin of your breast looks like the outside peel of an orange (red and pitting). If you notice any of these symptoms, you should be evaluated by your doctor sooner rather than later.
Once you have diagnosed with breast cancer, your doctor will evaluate several things and provide a stage. The stages range from 0 – IV with 0 being noninvasive or contained to one area and IV being that the cancer has metastasized. Your doctor will consider the stage, grade, size, sensitivity to hormones, your overall health and your preferences when they are developing a treatment plan. There are many different options available to treat breast cancer. Surgery to remove the cancerous cells is known as a lumpectomy; whereas, surgery to remove the entire breast is called a mastectomy. In most cases, if you have breast cancer in one breast, you will not have it in the other. So, most likely, you will not need to have both breasts removed unless you choose to do so. In order to ascertain if the cancer has spread to other cells, your doctor may remove a small number of lymph nodes that are near the affected area. If cancer is found in the lymph nodes close to the area, your doctor will discuss removing additional lymph nodes that are further away in hopes preventing the spread of the cancer cells. Another treatment option is radiation therapy, which uses high-powered beams of energy to kill the cancer cells. Chemotherapy is when medications are used to destroy the cancer cells. Often this is done before the removal of the tumor to decrease its size making it easier to take out or done after tumor removal in cases where the cancer cells have spread to other parts of the body. Some tumors are sensitive to hormones and can be treated by blocking the tumor from receiving those hormones, such as estrogen or progesterone. Newer areas of research are focusing on medications that attack specific abnormalities within cancer cells. This is great news because these medications would not harm your body’s healthy cells.
An important consideration when undergoing any type of breast cancer treatment is the use of palliative care. This type of care is focused on improving your quality of life by reducing your pain and other symptoms while you are going through the aggressive treatments. They also provide resources to you and your family regarding information in coping with your diagnose and the treatment process. It is essential to learn as much as you can about your type of breast cancer so you’ll be able to make an informed decision about the direction of your care. It can be helpful to talk to other breast cancer survivors, but remember to not shut out your family and friends as they can provide a support network. Be sure to talk to your significant other about your feelings and any insecurities you might be having and, if needed, talk to a professional counselor.
The best way to prevent breast cancer is to do early screenings because this will help you to know what your breasts are normally like, therefore, you’ll if something is wrong. Initially, all you need to do are self-breast exams. Ask your doctor when you should start having clinical breast exams and mammograms. Based off of your risk factors and health history, they will be able to explain the risks and benefits of having these completed and when they would be necessary. For most women who have the average amount of risk there are several things you can do. If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation. Maintain a healthy weight by exercising most days of the week for 30 minutes each time and eating a healthy diet. Also, if you are menopausal try to limit the amount of hormone therapy you take. If you have a high chance of developing breast cancer, your doctor may recommend taking preventive medications (these often have some form of chemotherapeutic agent in them, so they are not recommended for lower risk women) and preventive surgery (removal of healthy breasts).
Receiving a breast cancer diagnosis can be scary and overwhelming. Thankfully, there are several treatment options and the number of people who survive is steadily increasing. For those who don’t have breast cancer, it is essential that you start your screening process through self-breast exams early and promptly seek treatment for any changes that you notice. If you have any questions or concerns regarding breast cancer, please speak with your doctor. If you would like more information, please visit the American Cancer Society’s Breast Cancer page at https://www.cancer.org/cancer/breast-cancer.html