Breast cancer is one of those feared illnesses by many women. There are numerous commercials about breast cancer awareness, including statistics and warning signs. It’s been talked about for decades and most people will know someone who has it or has suffered from it.
There are some who no longer fear it as much. After all, many women do survive it. Yet there are still many who die from it every year, whether it’s a more aggressive form of breast cancer or it’s gone undiagnosed for too long. After all, breast cancer doesn’t just appear as lumps in the breast and can sometimes appear as discoloration on the skin.
While the prognosis is good for many, it’s important to catch it as early as possible. You’ll also want to take steps to avoid contributory factors when possible. Here’s all you need to know about breast cancer to help protect your life.
It Doesn’t Just Affect Women
Let’s start by getting rid of the misconception that this is female-only cancer. There are certain cancers out there that can only affect women, but breast cancer isn’t one of them. More women than men are statistically likely to be diagnosed, but there is breast tissue in men. There are estrogen levels in men. It is possible for men to develop this cancer.
One of the reasons the stats are so high for women is because men don’t tend to get diagnosed. They are embarrassed by the fact that they could have the disease since it’s viewed as female cancer. More men than women are likely to die of cancer because of this fact.
It’s important to remove the stigma of men suffering from breast cancer. Putting your health first is far more important than the stigmas around diseases.
Breast cancer is the second most common form of cancer diagnosed in women, with skin cancer ahead of it. This has meant the financial support into the research of it and development of treatments. Because of this, the survival rates are increasing every year. It’s possible for doctors to offer a more personalized approach now that they have a better understanding of cancer’s development.
Symptoms of Breast Cancer
Most breast cancers will develop with lumps as one of the symptoms. However, these lumps can be relatively small and may not appear until later stages. Looking for other signs is important.
Changes to the nipple and the tissue around the breast are among the most common symptoms of breast cancer. Many of these symptoms happen in the earlier stages. You may see your nipple inverts instead of sticks out or there may be dimples around the whole breast.
In some cases, the skin can start to crust and flake around the nipple and areola. Some women find that the skin darkens around this area or there may be some redness around the breast tissue. In some cases, cancer can form orange or dark patches, which many women ignore as signs of aging. This is especially the case if there are no other symptoms around the breast.
The tissue can thicken, and lumps can form. In many cases, the area becomes tender to touch and there may be some shooting pains around the breast area. The breasts can also change in shape and appearance due to the thickening skin.
It’s important to check the whole breast tissue for symptoms. Many women will check the main breast area but forget that the tissue travels all the way up to the armpit and to the sides of the body. Checking the area regularly will help you understand what the breast tissue normally feels like, so you’re more alert to minor changes that happen.
If you do find any of the symptoms, it’s important to talk to your doctor. Even if you recently had a mammogram, you’ll need to discuss the changes to your doctor. Your doctor will then schedule another mammogram and evaluate more to determine if there is a concern. Mammograms aren’t foolproof, and they can give false negatives now and then. And even if the negatives are right, they’re showing you the health of your breast at the time of the scan.
Contributory Factors to Breast Cancer
There are a lot of tales about the things that cause cancer. You’ll hear all about how certain foods, some chemicals, and even the sun is bad for you. It’s important to understand about all the contributory factors for breast cancer. This will help you determine if you need to change your lifestyle and be more on the lookout for the disease.
Doctors are still trying to understand more about breast cancer. So far, they know that the breast cells can grow abnormally, often accumulating much quicker than normal, so they form a mass within the breast tissue. Sometimes these masses can be benign (non-cancerous) but they can also pose a serious risk to your health.
The cells in the ducts are the most common ones to be affected first. These ducts are where milk is produced during breastfeeding. If you get a lump while breastfeeding, it could just be a blocked duct and you can fix that within 24 hours. If it doesn’t go away after those 24 hours, talk to your doctor. Cancer within the ducts is known as invasive ductal carcinoma.
You may also start with invasive lobular carcinoma, which is when the lobules within the glandular tissues are affected first. Cancer can spread to other parts of the breast and around the body.
So far, hormonal, genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors have all been linked to developing breast cancer. Some of these you will have a direct effect on and can reduce the risk of the development. In other cases, you can’t do anything about them. However, it’s important to note that you won’t always show risk factors and may develop breast cancer.
Inherited Breast Cancer Development
Your genes may cause your breast cancer, as 5-10% of the cancers are linked to mutations in the genes. These are all passed down through families and can be passed from both the mother and father. So far, doctors have found the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations are likely to lead to breast cancer. The mutations in these genes can also lead to ovarian cancer.
It is possible to get a genetic markup done. This is often suggested if there is a family history of breast and ovarian cancer, especially in the direct line. Your doctor can see if it’s either of these genes potentially causing the cancers and make suggestions to avoid this.
In many cases, your doctor will recommend proactive treatments to prevent cancer from occurring. You may remember actress Angelina Jolie opted to have both breasts removed because of her genetic link. The cancers that ran in her family were extremely aggressive.
You don’t have to go through breast removal. Your doctor will be able to run through all the options available, but this is an option for the most aggressive forms.
It’s important to remind you that no more than 10% of breast cancers are linked to genetic mutations. Most people who will develop the condition have no family history of it. This means looking into other factors.
Your Age and Hormones
In some cases, it’s not about the genes but about the hormones. The hormones can be affected by some of your lifestyle choices, but also due to your natural body makeup.
The times that you have no control involved when you start or end your menstrual cycle. Those who start their periods before the age of 12 are more likely to develop breast cancer at a later stage. Those who start menopause at a later stage in like than average is also more likely to develop breast cancer.
Some women will take hormone therapy drugs to treat their menopause symptoms. If you take those with both progesterone and estrogen, there is a chance that you will develop breast cancer later. The risk of developing cancer will decrease once you stop taking these medications. Your doctor will run through all the risks and determine the best option for your needs.
Women who never have a baby are also more likely to develop breast cancer. This is linked to the way the hormones increase and subside within the body and may also be linked to the way the breasts are used. However, there is no evidence to show that breastfeeding or not breastfeeding can lead to breast cancer!
If you already have a history of breast cancer, you may develop it again. This is often if you had breast cancer in one breast and had it removed. Many women will choose to keep the other breast, but there is a chance that you will eventually develop breast cancer in that breast.
Likewise, those with a history of having conditions within the breast are more likely to develop the condition. These conditions can include lobular carcinoma in situ or atypical hyperplasia.
Just being female and just getting older are also risk factors. Women are more likely to develop breast cancer than men because of the number of female hormones surging through the body. The age affects the hormonal development, meaning that breast cancer is more likely to occur.
The age that you had your first child may also increase the risk of developing cancer. Those who have their first child over 30 have shown high risks of developing breast cancer. Again, it’s linked to the hormones in the body.
Lifestyle and Environmental Factors
Some of the risk factors are linked to your lifestyle choices and environmental risks. There are certain chemicals that are known carcinogens. In some parts of the world things like formaldehyde are completely banned because of this, but in the United States, there aren’t these sorts of bans in place. Some of these chemicals are found in shampoos, soaps, and even food!
It can be difficult to find your way around these. And there’s no guarantee that you’ll develop cancer because of them since the other risk factors are higher. However, it’s worth being aware of the risks.
Radiation exposure is one of the worst environmental risks. There may have been medical reasons to be exposed to radiation, such as treatments for other illnesses and conditions. You may have been exposed recently or as a child. Either way, the risks of breast cancer increase considerably compared to many other risk factors.
The amount of alcohol and your weight are also risk factors. Those who drink excessively and are obese are more likely to develop breast cancer than those who drink moderately and are within a healthy weight range. If you reduce your drinking habits and lose weight, the risk of cancer will reduce.
Women who follow the Mediterranean diet are less likely to develop breast cancer. Not only will this help you lose weight, but you’re adding more omega-3 fatty acids. The omega-3s and other healthy fats, along with antioxidants, help to reduce the oxidative stress within the body. They help to fight off free radical damage and protect the cells, preventing the growth of abnormal cells. While the diet isn’t an exact way to prevent, it’s a strong way to look after your overall health.
Reducing Your Risks When You Are High Risk
If you’re considered high risk for developing the condition, then you’ll want to take steps to reduce them. Following the tips above can help in terms of diet and lifestyle, but what about when you have no control?
Doctors will take steps to help. Your doctor may suggest medications that block the estrogen in the body, including aromatase inhibitors and selective estrogen receptor modulators. The medications aren’t suitable for all and do have some adverse side effects, so you’ll want to discuss all your options with your doctor.
Surgery is another option. This is among the most extreme but also tends to be among the most effective. If you’re at a high risk of developing ovarian cancer as well, your doctor may also suggest that you have your ovaries removed.
You don’t have to have the surgical treatment. However, your doctor will likely want to carry out more mammograms and pap smears to ensure your health, especially if you’re at risk of the highly aggressive cancers.
Diagnosing Breast Cancer Effectively
You should carry out exams on your breasts monthly. This will help to catch any minor changes right away. Never feel like you’re wasting your doctor’s time with a small lump, as it could be the perfect size for easier removal and quicker treatments.
Your doctor will check your breast tissue and lymph nodes if you go with abnormalities and lumps. You will also likely have a mammogram, which is an X-ray of the breasts. This can detect abnormalities but won’t tell the doctor the severity of those abnormalities or what the actual masses are. You will need to have a diagnostic mammogram and likely a breast ultrasound to determine the full detail.
Sometimes a biopsy is required. This will require the removal of the breast cells to test to see if they are cancerous. This is the only way to tell if it’s breast cancer or not and is the last stage of diagnosis.
Biopsies also help to determine the aggressiveness and stage of the cancers. This information will help to determine the aggressiveness of the treatments required. If the aggressiveness is low, chemotherapy and other drug treatments will likely be suggested. If it is highly aggressive, the removal of the breast tissue may be the best option.
Breast Cancer Treatments and Options
Radiation therapy and chemotherapy are the two most common options for treating breast cancer. Chemo places drugs into the body to destroy the abnormally growing cells. This is usually used before surgery but can also be suggested afterward if there is a risk that cancer will recur, or you could get cancer elsewhere in the body.
There are side effects of chemotherapy. Many women experience fatigue and nausea, with some vomiting. There’s an increased risk of developing other illnesses, as your immune system will be suppressed. In some women, it can also cause premature menopause and infertility. If you’re still of child-bearing age, your doctor may suggest egg removal and fertilization in case you want children after cancer.
Chemo can also lead to damage to the kidneys, heart, and nerves. There is also a very rare chance of developing blood cell cancer. Your doctor will run through all the risks associated before you go through with it.
Radiation therapy involves the removal of the breast cancer, usually just the lump that is within the body. If the surgeons can get all the cells, there may be little need to remove the whole breast. In this case, your doctors may recommend chemotherapy afterward to help protect the rest of the breast tissue from developing cancer.
In more extreme cases a full mastectomy is required. This is the removal of the whole breast tissue on one side. Sometimes a double mastectomy is required, which is the removal of both breasts, the ducts, fatty tissues and some of the skin. There are now some treatments that attempt to save the nipples.
There are also treatments that involve the removal of some of the lymph nodes. This can then lead to a biopsy to determine if all the lymph nodes need removing. If there is no cancer in the small selection of nodes, there are high chances there will be no cancer in the others and your surgeon will elect to avoid removing them for now.
As this is surgery, there are complications to the treatments. You have an increased risk of infection and there is the risk of bleeding, pain and some inflammation and swelling around the area.
After the removal, you will usually go through radiation treatments. This involves the use of high-powered energy beams to kill off all the cancerous cells. It can be done through an external beam or through radioactive materials pushed into your body. Some doctors will encourage a chest wall therapy treatment if the cancer was aggressive.
You’ll usually see a doctor three times a week for a six-week period for the full treatment. However, this will depend on the exact form of breast cancer and severity of it. This is a more personalized option, as your doctor will determine the exact necessity for you.
The breast tissue will often become more swollen and firm after radiation treatments. You can also get a red rash that is a little like sunburn. In the more serious cases, the lungs or heart may be damaged. There is also a very rare chance of secondary cancer within the treated areas.
Finally, hormone therapy may be considered. This usually involves a hormone-blocking drug that helps to treat cancers that are sensitive to the hormones in the body. Your doctor will test for progesterone receptor positive and estrogen receptor positive cancers to determine the best types of hormone drugs to give.
Hormone therapy is often used with other treatments. They help to decrease the risk of cancers forming again and can help to shrink some cancers if it’s already started to spread.
You are more likely to experience menopause side effects when going through hormone treatments. These include night sweats, hot flashes, and some vaginal dryness. Your libido may also be affected afterward. Some women also experience more blood clots and bone thinning.
Breast Cancer: The Conclusion
It’s important to speak to your doctor as soon as you notice any signs of breast cancer. Don’t be embarrassed, whether male or female. Getting cancer treated when it’s in the earlier stages means that you’re more likely to treat it quicker and less aggressively; so, you have fewer side effects.
Having support is essential when it comes to breast cancer treatments. They are tiring, whether you have radiation therapy or chemotherapy. You can find yourself unable to get to and from appointments easily or safely, due to the fatigue and nausea. It’s possible for the mental health to be affected because of the fatigue and the thought of having breast cancer. Support is often good for helping to keep the spirits up.
If you don’t have support close to you, your doctor may be able to help refer you to cancer support groups. There will be people just diagnosed and others who have been through treatments and made it through the other side to offer advice and hope.