Know the Facts About Breast Cancer
Everywhere you look this month, you will see shades of pink highlighting National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
From pink ribbons on products in your grocery stores as well as pink lights illuminating buildings at night, these pink campaigns have done a great job in bringing more awareness to breast cancer. They also serve a reminder about the importance of routine screening for early detection best outcomes.
While “going pink” has become synonymous with October, the messages throughout the month are important all year round, not just this time of year. It is also important to understand the basics of breast cancer, its signs and symptoms, and risk factors. This knowledge can make a difference in dispelling myths and creating true awareness.
Breast cancer isn’t just one disease. There are many different types of breast cancer, all of which begin as a malignant tumor that starts in the cells of the breast. A malignant tumor is a group of cancer cells that can invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant areas of the body. The disease occurs almost most frequently in women, but men can get it, too.
According to the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, about 265,000 new cases of breast cancer will be diagnosed in women and approximately 40,000 women will die from breast cancer in the U.S. this year.
Since this type of cancer affects mostly women, it is important to understand the structure of the breast. The female breast is made up mainly of lobules (milk-producing glands), ducts (tiny tubes that carry the milk from the lobules to the nipple) and stroma (fatty tissue and connective tissue surrounding the ducts and lobules, blood vessels and lymphatic vessels).
Most breast cancers begin in the cells that line the ducts (ductal cancers). Some begin in the cells that line the lobules (lobular cancers), while a small number start in other tissues.
While anyone can potentially develop breast cancer, there are certain risk factors. Age is one consideration. As women age, their breast cancer risk increases.
Most breast cancers are diagnosed after age 50. Women who began menstruating before age 12 also have a higher risk of developing breast cancer. Certain lifestyle factors can increase the risk. Two or more alcohol drinks daily nearly doubles the risk. Likewise, being overweight or obese after menopause increases fat tissue which can lead to increased estrogen and a higher risk.
Women with a family history have two times higher risk especially if a first degree relative (mother, sister, daughter) is affected. They have three times higher risk if two first degree relatives are affected.
Other risk factors include having dense breast tissue, those who have had hormone therapy after menopause, having a previous history of breast cancer, never having had a child or first birth after age 30, as well as oral contraceptive use.
Genetics also play a role in the risk of developing breast cancer. About five to 10% of breast cancer cases are thought to be hereditary, resulting directly from gene mutations inherited from a parent. The most common cause of hereditary breast cancer is a mutation in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes.
Symptoms of breast cancer can include a lump or mass in the breast, enlarged lymph nodes in the armpit or changes in breast size, shape, skin texture or color. Some women may experience unexplained skin irritation or dimpling; breast or nipple pain; nipple retraction (turning inward); a redness, scaliness or thickening of the nipple or breast skin, or nipple discharge (other than breast milk).
While a diagnosis of breast cancer can be frightening, there have been great advances in the treatment of breast cancer.
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms or if you have a family history of breast cancer, talk to your doctor.