Breast cancer is one of the most common cancers in the world. There are more than 55,000 new cases in the UK each year and the disease claims the lives of 11,500 women. In the United States, it hits 266,000 each year and kills 40,000. But what causes it and how can it be treated?
What is breast cancer?
Breast cancer develops from a cancer cell that develops in the lining of a duct or lobe of one of the breasts.
When breast cancer has spread to the surrounding breast tissue, it is called “invasive” breast cancer. Some people are diagnosed with “in situ carcinoma,” where no cancer cells have grown beyond the duct or lobe.
Most cases occur in women over the age of 50, but sometimes younger women are affected. Breast cancer can develop in men, although this is rare.
Staging means the size of the cancer and whether it has spread. Stage 1 is the earliest stage and stage 4 means the cancer has spread to another part of the body.
Cancer cells are classified from low, which means slow growth, to high, which is fast-growing. High-grade cancers are more likely to return after being treated for the first time.
What Causes Breast Cancer?
A cancerous tumor starts from an abnormal cell. The exact reason why a cell becomes cancerous is unclear. It is believed that something damages or alters certain genes in the cell. This causes the cell to become abnormal and multiply “out of control.”
While breast cancer can develop for no apparent reason, there are some risk factors that can increase the chance of developing breast cancer, such as genetics.
What are the symptoms of breast cancer?
The first common symptom is a painless lump in the breast, although most nodes are not cancerous and are fluid-filled cysts, which are benign.
The first place where breast cancer usually spreads is the lymph nodes in the armpit. If this happens, you will develop a swelling or lump in your armpit.
How is breast cancer diagnosed?
- Initial assessment: A doctor examines your breasts and armpits. They may perform tests such as a mammogram, a special x-ray of the breast tissue that may indicate the possibility of tumors.
- Biopsy: A biopsy is when a small sample of tissue is removed from a part of the body. The sample is then examined under a microscope for abnormal cells. The sample may confirm or rule out cancer.
If it is confirmed that you have breast cancer, more tests may be needed to assess whether it has spread. For example, a blood test, an ultrasound of the liver, or a chest x-ray.
How is breast cancer treated?
Treatment options that may be considered include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and hormone treatment. A combination of two or more of these treatments is often used.
- Surgery: Conservative breast surgery or removal of the affected breast depending on the size of the tumor.
- Radiation therapy: treatment that uses high-energy radiation beams focused on cancerous tissue. This kills the cancer cells or prevents the cancer cells from multiplying. It is mainly used in addition to surgery.
- Chemotherapy: Treatment of cancer through the use of anticancer drugs that kill cancer cells or prevent them from multiplying.
- Hormone Treatments: Some types of breast cancer are affected by the “female” hormone estrogen, which can stimulate cancer cells to divide and multiply. Treatments that reduce the levels of these hormones, or prevent them from working, are commonly used in people with breast cancer.
How successful is the treatment?
The prognosis is better in those who are diagnosed when the cancer is still small and has not spread. Surgical removal of a tumor at an early stage can give a good chance of healing.
Routine mammography offered to women between the ages of 50 and 70 means that more breast cancers are being diagnosed and treated at an early stage.
For more information, visit breastcancercare.org.uk, breastcancernow.org, or www.cancerhelp.org.uk