Breast cancer is a cancer that starts in the breast cells of both men and women. According to Cancer Research UK over 44,500 people develop breast cancer each year and of those approximately 300 are men. 1 in 9 women will develop breast cancer in their lifetime and it has become the most common type of cancer in the UK (with the exception of non melanoma skin cancer).
To understand the development of breast cancer you first need to understand the breast. The breast is a gland comprised of:
– Connective tissue (flesh).
– Gland tissue divided into lobes/lobules.
The lobes produce milk which drains into ducts which then drain onto the surface of the nipple. Breast cancer can develop in the cells that line the breast, the lobes and the ducts. Cancer which is confined to the lobes and ducts is referred to as ‘non-invasive’ because it has not yet developed the ability to spread to other areas of the body. Cancer which has moved into the surrounding breast tissue is referred to as ‘invasive’. Men have small amounts of breast tissue behind their nipples hence the possibility of breast cancer in males.
As with other types of cancer it is not known exactly what causes these cells to become cancerous. However, there are a number of strong risk factors associated with breast cancer development:
1) AGE:- According to BreastCancer.Org your risk increases as you age. From birth till age 39 your risk is believed to be 0.5%, from 40 till 59 your risk is believed to be 4% and from 60 till 79 your risk is believed to be 7%. The reason that your risk increases with age is that unfortunately the longer that you are alive the more chance you have of developing a genetic abnormality.
2) ALCOHOL:- According to this study your risk of breast cancer increases in relation to the average number of drinks you consume daily.
3) BREAST CANCER HISTORY:- Developing breast cancer in one breast increases the risk of it developing in the other breast in the future.
4) CHILDREN:- Having no children is believed to increase the risk of contracting breast cancer. The later you have your children is also believed to increase the risk of breast cancer development.
5) HEIGHT:- Taller women are associated with an increased risk of breast cancer.
6) MENSTRUATION:- Women who start having their periods early or have their menopause late are believed to be at an increased risk of contracting breast cancer.
7) FAMILY HISTORY:- A family history of breast cancer or other types of cancer increases your risk of developing the condition. There are also (at the time of writing) two specific genes associated with breast cancer – BRCA1 and BRCA2.
8) RADIATION:- According to this study from BreastCancer.org exposure to radiation can increase your risk of developing breast cancer.
9) WEIGHT:- Being overweight reduces your risk of developing breast cancer pre-menopause but increases your risk of developing breast cancer post-menopause.
Breast cancer does not always show symptoms but there are a few things you can look out for. These include:
1) A LUMP IN THE BREAST:- In many cases women will notice a lump in their breasts whilst washing or examining them. This lump is often hard with uneven edges and generally painless.
2) A CHANGE IN THE BREAST SKIN:- Breast cancer can cause the breast skin to become wrinkled or swollen. In some cases the skin may change and become like the skin of an orange.
3) DISHCHARGE FROM THE NIPPLE:- In some cases the nipple may emit bloody discharge and pus that can be clear, green or yellow.
4) INWARD NIPPLES:- Breast cancer can cause the nipple to be pulled in and turn inwards.
If you notice any of the above symptoms or have any other reason to suspect you may have breast cancer then you should consult your doctor immediately. They will then be able to perform a number of tests which will help identify breast cancer. These tests include:
1) PHYSICAL EXAMINATION:- The first stage of screening for breast cancer often involves a physical examination by your doctor. If this physical exam reveals any lumps or other signs of breast cancer your doctor will then schedule further tests.
2) MAMMOGRAMS:- A mammogram is the term given to breast x-rays. A mammogram is good for identifying abnormalities in the breast but does not always reveal whether they are benign (non-cancerous) or malignant (cancerous).
3) ULTRASOUND:- Ultrasound scanning is often used to determine whether any lumps found in the breast are liquid or solid.
4) FINE NEEDLE ASPIRATION CYTOLOGY (FNAC):- This involves inserting a needle into any lumps that are found to determine whether it contains fluid (a cyst) or it is solid. The needle also allows some of the cells to be removed for microscope examination (a process called cytology) to determine whether the lump is benign or malignant.
If any of the above tests reveal breast cancer then the next stage is treatment. Treatment chosen will depend upon how far the breast cancer has developed. Treatments include:
1) SURGERY:- There are generally two types of breast cancer surgery; breast conservation (removal of the tumour and surrounding breast tissue) and mastectomy (removal of the whole breast). The option chosen will depend upon the size of the lump because breast conservation will not be possible with larger lumps.
2) RADIOTHERAPY:- Radiotherapy is generally used on all breast conservation patients. This is usually given daily between Monday and Friday for three to five weeks. It is also used on mastectomy patients where there is thought to be a risk of recurrence.
3) HORMONES:- Certain tumours are sensitive to oestrogen and an effective way to treat these types of tumour is to stop oestrogen reaching them. The most common way to do this is by taking a medicine called tamoxifen.
4) CHEMOTHERAPY:- This involves being given a combination of anti-cancer medicines. One of the negative side effects of chemotherapy is that it can also kill normally dividing cells such as blood cells and hair cells.
The effectiveness of breast cancer treatments varies depending upon a number of factors including the type of tumour and the size of the tumour. However, there are a number of things you can do to reduce your risk of ever getting breast cancer. These include:
1) REDUCING YOUR ALCOHOL CONSUMPTION:- As identified in the above risk factors there is a link between alcohol consumption and breast cancer. Therefore, it is advisable to limit your intake to less than one drink per day.
2) CONTROL YOUR BODY WEIGHT:- Although being overweight reduces your risk of developing breast cancer pre-menopause, it is still a good idea to control your weight. Putting weight on pre-menopause will make it more difficult to lose post-menopause (when it starts to increase your risk) and being overweight also puts you at risk for other types of cancer. Therefore, you should try and keep your weight within a healthy level.
3) EAT A HEALTHY, BALANCED DIET:- Although there is no direct link between breast cancer and diet eating a healthy, balanced diet will make it easier for you to control your body weight.
4) EXERCISE REGULARLY:- According to this article exercise can reduce your risk of contracting breast cancer by as much as 20%.
Breast cancer can not be fully prevented but by following the above advice you can reduce your risk. Furthermore, by examining your breasts regularly for lumps or abnormalities you can catch any potential breast cancer early, increasing the chances of effective treatment. Whilst I cannot say that you will never develop breast cancer I hope this article significantly reduces your chances of contracting the disease.
Whilst every intention has been made to make this article accurate and informative, it is intended for general information only. Breast cancer is a very serious, life threatening condition and you should discuss any concerns, treatments or lifestyle changes fully with your doctor.
Alcohol and Breast Cancer (Cancer Research UK)
Breast Cancer and Age (BreastCancer.Org)
Breast Cancer and Exercise (BBC)
Breast Cancer and Radiation (BreastCancer.org)
Breast Cancer Information (Breast Cancer Care)
Breast Cancer Information (Cancer Research UK)
Breast Cancer Information (Net Doctor)
Breast Cancer Information (Wikipedia)
Menopause Information (Wikipedia)