October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and in honor of that recognition, here we discuss what breast cancer is and examine how greater awareness can help in the fight. Breast cancer is the second most common cancer diagnosed in women in the United States, second only to the pervasive skin cancer epidemic. It encompasses 30% of all new female cancers each year. While breast cancer can occur in both women and men, it is vastly more common in women.
If breast cancer is discovered early on, a patient’s prognosis is generally quite good. With this in mind, it is no wonder that with raised awareness and funding, breast cancer survival rates are increasing. As so many people (especially women) will be affected by the disease in some way in the course of their lives, information about breast cancer must be readily available so people know what to expect. In the fight against breast cancer, it is vital to improve the conversation about the cancer itself and to make regular and widely available screening possible.
What Causes Breast Cancer?
Like any form of cancer, breast cancer arises from abnormal cell growth, specifically in any of the cells in the breast. The cells replicate at an erratic pace and amass in a concentrated area, forming a lump or mass. The precise cause of this abnormal cellular behavior is often a combination of genetic and environmental factors.
The predisposition for cancer can be passed genetically. In fact, it is estimated that 5–10% of breast cancers are linked to gene mutations that have been inherited. Other genetic predispositions or situational factors are also associated with getting breast cancer, including having menstrual periods before the age of 12 and starting menopause after 55. Either of these expose women to hormones for a longer period of time than is typical, increasing the risk of cancer.
Potential Warning Signs
While every case of breast cancer is unique, these are few of the common symptoms:
- Pain in the breast area
- Any change in the shape or size of the breast
- A lump in the breast or underarm that was not previously there
- Nipple discharge of anything other than breast milk, including blood
The risk factors before these symptoms arise are varied. As mentioned above, women are more than 100 times more likely to develop breast cancer than men. Roughly 2,700 men are diagnosed with breast cancer each year while an estimated 287,850 women will be diagnosed this year. Clearly, sex is the most dominant risk factor.
Age also plays a role, as do genetics, a family or personal history of breast cancer, exposure to radiation (which can cause genes to mutate), and even alcohol consumption. Alcohol levels in the blood can increase estrogen and other hormones associated with cancer. Alcohol also increases fat and folic acid levels, both of which have indications of heightened cancer risk.
In the Case of Cancer
Early detection is the best prevention available. Cancer severity increases when the cancer cells metastasize (spread) through the breast to the lymph nodes or to other areas of the body. In fact, five-year relative survival rates drop from an encouraging 99.1% to a devastating 30.0% if the cancer progresses and the cells metastasize.
Mammograms, X-ray scans of the breast, are the best tools available for detecting a problem early on. Sometimes mammograms can detect the presence of breast cancer years before physical effects are apparent. The United States Preventive Services Task Force has recommended that women at average risk for breast cancer between the ages of 50 and 74 get a mammogram every two years, and we recommend that women consult with their physicians about whether or not they should be screened as early as age 40.
If you have a history of breast cancer in your family, see a doctor and discuss your screening options.
Breast cancer affects family members, friends, and the survivor’s way of life. As is the case with other types of cancer, breast cancer may be treated with surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, or hormone therapy. Prostheses and reconstructive surgery are available in the case that mastectomy is required.
Resources are available for those looking to talk with others who have personally experienced the effects of breast cancer. Across the United States, awareness for how to catch the disease early on, how to help patients through the uncertain process, and how to adjust after treatment is increasing each year. If you have or have had breast cancer or if someone close to you has, remember that you are not alone.