A woman’s breasts, like all other parts of her body, are made up of tissues whose strength depends upon the continuous transformation of body cells that form them. These cells keep growing as the various body parts need them. When cells get old and damaged, they normally die to give way for the formation of new cells that take the place of the old or damaged ones. But the replacement process may sometimes go wrong and new cells begin to grow at a time when the body does not need them or the old and damaged ones may fail to die as they should. This malfunction of body cells results in a build-up of extra cells within body tissues which often accumulate into a mass of tissue referred to as growth, lump, or a tumor. Breast cancers result from such abnormal growth of cells in the breast tissue.
Breast Cancer Prevention and Detection
The actual causes of breast cancer are still unclear although some women are said to have a higher risk of contracting it than others. But the simple fact of just being female is perhaps one of the most important factors that make every woman more susceptible to the development of breast cancer than a man. Although the disease affects a small fraction of males, it is almost exclusively a female disease with less than 1% of males suffering from it each year. Results derived from surveys conducted by the American Cancer Society estimate that 1 in every 7 women is at risk of developing breast cancer in their lifetime. Women who hail from families that have breast cancer history are for example exposed to a higher risk of contracting the disease than those whose families have no such history. High alcohol consumption also increases the risk of developing breast cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, women whose alcohol consumption varies between two to five drinks each day have a 1.5 times higher risk of developing the disease than those who do not. Women who take too much alcohol after reaching menopause are also at greater risk of developing breast cancer. Low levels of vitamins A, B12, D, and E in women also expose them to high risks of developing breast cancer.
Victims have also been found to have abnormally low rates of the mineral selenium. Vitamin E and selenium are important antioxidants useful in neutralizing free radicals. Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) used in alleviating the symptoms and discomforts associated with menopause also raises the risk of contracting invasive breast cancer to 25%. Pre-menopausal women who eat sport-caught fish have been found to display a greater risk of developing breast cancer than those who do not. This is because fish flesh often contains high concentrations of hydrocarbons such as DDT, PCBs, and PBDEs which are collectively referred to as carcinogens. A high intake of carbohydrates rich in sucrose and fructose is also another risk factor. Young women who have been exposed to chest radiation treatment for Hodgkin Lymphoma are also at a very high risk of contracting the disease (Kopans 2007, 2, 79; Balch 2006, pp.254-256, 259; McConnell 2006, p.256).
There are various types of breast cancer and the classification of breast cancer into any of these types depends on its origin. The most common type of breast cancer which also represents 78% of all breast malignancies is known as Ductal Carcinoma In-Situ or (DCIS). They are found in the breast ducts and at this stage, cancer has not spread to nearby breast tissue. Medullary Carcinoma is another type of breast cancer that is also common among women but this type is more prominent in women within the late 40s and 50s age bracket. It derives its name from the resemblance that these cancer cells have with the brain’s medulla. The third type of cancer popularly referred to as Infiltrating Lobular Carcinoma (ILC) represents 5% of all breast cancer diagnoses and affects the upper part or one-fourth of the breast. Tubular Carcinoma which makes up about 2% of women’s breast cancers affects women within the 50 years and above age bracket and is also said to display a 95% or 10-year survival rate after detection. A lesser common type is the Mucinous Carcinoma (Colloid) which represents a mere 1-2% of all breast cancers and is differentiated from the others because of its poor cell definition and mucus production. Breast cancer also occurs in the form of a rare but very aggressive form of breast cancer known as Inflammatory Breast Cancer (IBC). This type of breast cancer affects the victim by blocking the lymph vessels in the skin covering the victim’s breast. It derives its name from the term inflammation because it causes redness and swelling of the breast. It has an occurrence rate of 1-5% (McConnell 2006, p.572; National Breast Cancer Foundation 2009; National Cancer Institute 2009, p.7).
During its early stages, breast cancer has no symptoms, and changes to the affected woman’s breast often occur as the tumor progresses. Common changes resulting from breast tumors include introvert nipples, bloody discharge from the nipples, change in breast shape and size as well as dimpling of the skin around the breast. The skin around the nipple may also appear swollen, red, or scaly. If early detection of the disease is made, breast cancer is usually treatable. To make this practical, doctors often recommend that women must undergo regular mammograms and clinical breast examinations so that early detection of the disease is made possible. During a breast examination, a healthcare provider normally checks for differences in breast shape or size or any other of the abnormal signs that are associated with breast cancer. Very careful examination is also carried out around the collarbone and underarm areas to rule out any lumps that may be present in these areas. Lymph nodes close to the breast are also examined to find out if they have increased in size. If at one point the healthcare provider discovers a lump during such examination, he or she will proceed to feel its texture, shape, and size and also check if the lump moves easily under the patient’s skin. This is largely because non-cancerous lumps also referred to as benign lumps often feel very differently from malignant ones in terms of texture, shape, or size. Benign lumps are often round, soft, smooth, and moveable while cancerous ones often feel hard, firmly attached, and oddly shaped. Further tests are however necessary in order to provide a full diagnosis (National Cancer Institute 2009, pp.5-6).
Various tests are recommended for breast cancer examination with the purpose of detecting the disease early enough and administering the right treatment because early detection and treatment increase the survival rate of the victims. Women above the 40 years age margin should undergo a screening mammogram at least once every 1 or 2 years. If any breast abnormalities or abnormalities of surrounding tissues are detected during a mammogram, doctors usually resort to diagnostic mammograms. Extensive study of the breast is then made by looking for unusual changes in breast structure, appearance, or texture. The doctor examines the patient’s breasts for the presence of lumps, nipple discharge, and thickening of breast tissue, pain, or even changes in shape or size. Other imaging tests for breast cancer include MRIs and ultrasounds. MRIs are computer-based powerful magnets that make detailed images of breast tissue to highlight any difference between diseased and normal tissue. Ultrasounds are on the other hand used to check for fluid in the detected lump. Breast cancer examination can also be carried out through a biopsy; a process by which breast tissue is removed and examined for cancer. Abnormal breast areas detected through MRIs, mammograms, or ultrasound have a small part of their tissues removed for further examination. Different types of biopsies include skin biopsy, core biopsy, and surgical biopsy. Special lab tests may also be carried out on the extracted breast tissue of a patient diagnosed with breast cancer. Lab tests include the hormone receptor test and the HER2/neu, a test carried out to check for too much of the HER2/neu protein and find out suitable methods of controlling it (National Cancer Institute 2009, p.6; Kopans 2007, p.323).
The type of treatment to be administered to a patient after breast cancer detection is often determined by the stage at which diagnoses of the disease have been made. Various diagnostic methods such as CT scan, blood scan, bone scan, and lymph node biopsy are used to determine the extent of the disease. All these tests help to determine the type of treatment to be administered to the patient in question. If breast cancer is detected, the patient and her doctor have various treatment methods at hand to choose from and careful selection of the method should be made depending on the stage of the disease. Such options include but are not limited to chemotherapy, targeted therapy, hormone and radiation therapy, as well as surgery. Treatment options vary between different breast cancer patients and more than one method may also be used on the same patient. Systematic therapy which includes a combination of chemotherapy, hormone, and targeted therapies is also used as a treatment method. Through this method, drugs that are capable of destroying or controlling breast cancer are introduced into the patient’s bloodstream. Apart from the stage at which breast cancer is detected, treatment for the disease can also be determined by such other factors as the results of hormone receptors and HER2/neu test, as well as the general health of the patient. The doctor normally guides the patient through the treatment choices suitable for her, the results expected from such treatment, and the kind of side effects likely to result from the treatment (National Cancer Institute 2009, pp.7-8).
Other methods of treating breast cancer include breast-conserving surgery through which only a part of the affected breast is removed; or mastectomy through which the surgeon extracts the whole of the affected breast or most of the breast tissue. Other methods of breast cancer treatment may also be recommended if the surgeon discovers that cancer has spread to the patient’s lymph nodes. If much breast tissue has been removed, breast reconstruction is necessary and it is performed either during or after the surgery. Radiation therapy most commonly referred to as radiotherapy is also used to treat breast cancer by administering high-energy rays to the affected area. The most common type of radiotherapy used in breast cancer treatment is external radiation therapy and it is administered for roughly 5 days a week within the treatment period of 4 to 6 weeks. Internal radiation therapy is also used and because this method rules out any presence of radioactivity after treatment, it can be carried out on a daily basis every week until the desired results have been achieved. Breast cancer is also treatable through hormone therapy, chemotherapy, and targeted therapy. Chemotherapy destroys the fast-growing cancer cells while targeted therapy uses drugs to inhibit further growth of cancer cells. The FDA has approved a variety of treatment drugs such as Epuribicin, Docetaxel, Paclitaxel, Tamoxifen, Trastuzumab, Anastrozole, Cytoxan, Adriamycin, and Adrucil. After treatment, a patient may suffer from diet-related side effects and the help of a dietician becomes necessary. Follow-up care is also necessary in order to monitor any changes in the patient’s general health that would require treatment (Balch 2006, pp.257-258; National Cancer Institute 2009, pp. 8-12).
Breast cancer stands out among other types of cancers as the best-studies human tumor but also one which is also very poorly understood. The actual causes of various types of breast cancers remain very obscure, and it is still very unclear who is likely to develop breast cancer. Although most experts agree that invasive cancers are initially identified as DCIs, no accurate method of diagnosis can be identified which has been able to mark down the type of DCIs that can advance into invasive cancers if left untreated. Although a universal cure for breast cancer is still in incubation, breast cancer remains one of the most manageable, treatable, and curable types of cancers (Kopans 2007, p.2).
Balch, A. P. (2006). Prescription for nutritional healing: A practical A-to-Z reference to drug-free remedies. Knoxville, TN: Avery.
Kopans, B.D. (2007). Breast imaging. Baltimore, MD: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
McConnell, H.T. (2006). The nature of the disease: Pathology for health professions. Baltimore, MD: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
National Breast Cancer Foundation, Inc. (2009). Types of breast cancer. Web.
National Cancer Institute(10/15/2009). U.S National Institutes of Health. Web.