Breast Cancer: What Women Need to Know

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Breast cancer starts as one malignant cell. The cell divides and becomes two malignant cells, the two divide again and become four, and so on. In most cases, one division takes between 30 and 60 days. Signs and symptoms usually start showing after the 30th division. You can’t detect it before the 28th division by hand. 

The earliest you can feel a cancerous lump in your breast is after two to five years. By this time, it is about one-half inch in size and has had enough time to spread to other parts of the body. Routine scheduled mammograms can help detect breast cancer early. Screening does not prevent cancer, but it helps find it before it is too late. 

Causes & Risk Factors

Cancer of the breast is the second most common type of cancer and the second leading cause of death in women. One in every eight women in the US will develop cancer of the breast at some point in their lifetime. 

The exact cause of this type of cancer is still unclear, but some risk factors make it more likely. The main risk factors are gender and age. Most patients are women above 50. That does not mean that mean can get breast cancer.

Having a risk factor does not mean that you will get cancer. Some women get breast cancer without having any risk factors. Many women have these risk factors but don’t have cancer. Knowing these risk factors is important because it can help you lower your risks. 

If you have any or some of the following breast cancer risk factors, talk with your healthcare provider about screening and how you can lower your risks:

1. Age

The risk of getting all types of cancer increases as you age. The older you are getting, the higher the chances that a cell will mutate and grow into cancer. Information from the National Cancer Institute report shows that the median age of diagnosis among all breast cancer patients in the US is 62 years. 

2. Family history

Some gene mutations cause diseases. Every human has BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. They are responsible for keeping the breast, ovarian, and other cells growing normally. Mutations in These two genes can cause cancer. Having these mutations does not mean that you will develop this type of cancer at some point in your life. Gene mutations only account for 10 percent of all breast cancer cases.

Women with BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations are more likely to develop breast cancer if they have:

  • blood relative (sister, mother, aunts, or grandmother) from either the father’s or mother’s side of the family who was diagnosed with breast cancer before age 50
  • relative that has both breast and ovarian cancer from either side of the family
  • relative with cancer on both breasts
  • man in the family that has breast cancer
  • relatives with triple-negative breast cancer
3. Personal history

People who have successfully recovered from cancer of the breast are 4 to 5 times more likely to develop new cancer. New cancer can either be on the other breast or on another part of the breast that recovered.

4. Radiation exposure

Radiations to the chest to treat conditions like Hodgkin’s disease can increase your risks. Radiation to the face to treat acne also increases the chances of developing cancer of the breast later in life.

5. Breastfeeding history

Mothers should breastfeed their babies for more than one year. Breastfeeding for more than one year can lower the risks of breast cancer. If you have a baby but don’t want to breastfeed, you should talk to your doctor about the risks and how you can lower them.

6. Dense breasts

A dense breast is one that has more connective tissue than fatty tissue. Dense breasts are normal and do not require any treatment. You can’t feel whether you have a dense breast or not. Having a hard breast does not mean that it has many connective tissues. Doctors have difficulty seeing breast cancer in women with dense breasts.

7. Diethylstilbestrol (DES) Exposure

Between 1940 and 1971, pregnant women in the US were taking DES to prevent miscarriage. These women and their children are at high risk of developing breast cancer.

8. Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT)

Hormone replacement therapy users are at high risk of developing lung cancer. Women experiencing hot flashes and other menopausal side effects should talk with their doctors about the benefits and risks of HRT. Women with BRCA1 or BRCA2 should not use HRT. 

9. Smoking

Smoking causes an array of diseases. It is the leading cause of breast cancer in young women. Studies are also showing that exposure to heavy secondhand smoke can increase the risk of cancer in postmenopausal women. 

Signs & Symptoms 

Breast cancer is progressive and can spread to other parts of the body. Knowing some of its warning symptoms can help you start treatment early before it is too late. If you notice any of the following symptoms, you should see your doctor right away:

  • Nipple discharge (blood and pus)
  • A new lump in the breast or armpit
  • Breast thickening or swelling
  • Persistent itching of the breast skin
  • Redness in the nipple area
  • Dimpling of the breast skin
  • Sunken nipple
  • Pain in any part of the breast

If you have some or any of the above signs and symptoms, it is not a guarantee that you have breast cancer. Other conditions can cause similar symptoms. Your doctor will diagnose you to know the exact cause of the symptoms. 

Screening & Diagnosis

Doctors use a mammogram to screen breast cancer. Regular mammograms can help find breast cancer as early as three years before you can feel it. 

The patient stands in front of an X-ray machine. A technologist places one breast on a plastic plate and then releases the top plate to press and flatten the breast before taking an X-ray. Some women feel some pain, but the discomfort doesn’t last long. The technologist forwards the mammogram to a radiologist who reads it and generates a report.

An abnormal mammogram does not always mean that you have cancer. You will need additional tests and exams to be sure. Your doctor can also refer you to a breast specialist to get an expert diagnosis of the problem. Among the additional tests your doctor may order are:

  • Diagnostic mammogram
  • Ultrasound
  • MRI
  • Biopsy

Prevention & Treatment

There are several treatment options available. The best treatment option will depend on the type of cancer that you have and its stage. You can also get more than one kind of treatment. Some of these treatment options include:

  • Surgery: Surgical removal of the cancerous tissue
  • Hormonal therapy: These are drugs like ERDs, SERMs, and aromatase inhibitors that prevent cancer cells from getting the hormones they need to grow. 
  • Chemotherapy: Drugs medications that shrink or kill cancer cells. 
  • Radiation therapy: High energy rays are directed to the breast to kill cancer cells. 
  • Biological therapy: Supplement and drugs to boost your immune system and help it fight cancer cells

How to Reduce Breast Cancer Risks

There are so many factors that increase your cancer risk. You can not change factors like age and family history, but taking care of your health can lower your risks and boost your immune system to fight cancer. Here are some of the ways that you can use to take care of your health:

  • Choose a healthy diet
  • Limit alcohol drinks
  • Quit smoking
  • Talk to your doctor before hormone replacement therapy
  • Breastfeed your child for more than one year
  • Talk to your doctor if you inherited gene mutations or have a family history
  • Exercise
  • Lose weight

Check out Better Ways of Preventing Cancer

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