Breast cancer is the second most common cancer diagnosed in women. It occurs mostly in women, though men can also get breast cancer (less than 1% of cases). With growing awareness and advancement in diagnosis and treatment, breast cancer survival rates have increased and deaths due to the disease have decreased steadily.
Breast cancer can occur at any age, though it is mostly diagnosed in patients over the age of 50.
Spread of breast cancer
Breast cancer can start in one or both breasts when the cells begin to grow out of control. These cells divide more rapidly than healthy cells, forming a lump or mass. Most breast lumps are benign and not malignant (cancerous). However, it is very important to get any breast lump checked by a specialist.
Cells may spread through the breast to the lymph nodes or other parts of the body.
Different people may exhibit different symptoms of breast cancer. Some signs and symptoms of breast cancer include the following:
- New lump in the breast or underarm
- Change in the size or shape of the breast
- Irritation or dimpling of the skin over the breast
- Redness or flaky skin in the nipple area
- Fluid discharge from the nipple
- Pain in any area of the breast
A few people may not show any symptoms at all though they are affected by breast cancer.
Breast cancer generally begins with the cells in the milk-producing ducts. It may also begin in the glandular tissue called lobules or in other cells within the breast.
According to medical research, hormonal, lifestyle and environmental factors can all increase the risk of breast cancer. As a womanâ€™s age increases, the risk of breast cancer also rises.
Family history and genetics also have a role in determining the risk of the disease. Around 5% to 10% of the cases are due to single abnormal genes. These can be detected by genetic testing.
Other causes of breast cancer include smoking and drinking alcohol. In addition, patients with prior radiation therapy or hormone replacement therapy are at greater risk of developing breast cancer.
Diagnosis of breast cancer
There are several tests that may be recommended by the doctor to check for breast abnormalities. These tests can include:
- Mammogram: Mammogram is an X-ray picture of the breast that helps doctors in detecting early signs of breast cancer.
- Ultrasonography: It helps in diagnosing breast lumps or abnormalities by using sound waves to take pictures of the tissues inside the breast.
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): MRI produces detailed images of the interna structure of the breast using magnets and radio waves.
- Positron emission tomography (PET) scanning: During a PET scan, a special dye is injected into the veins, after which the image of the affected areas is taken by the scanner.
Treatment of breast cancer
Breast cancer can be treated using a number of treatment options such as surgery, chemotherapy, hormone therapy, immunotherapy, radiation therapy and targeted drug therapy. Doctors may recommend one or more of these options based on factors like location and size of the tumour, spread of cancer to the other parts of the body, results of the lab tests, etc.
Surgery involves removing the cancerous portion of the patientâ€™s breast and an area of normal tissue surrounding the tumour. It can be of different types such as lumpectomy, mastectomy, sentinel node biopsy, etc.
Chemotherapy may be recommended before a lumpectomy to shrink the tumour and sometimes after surgery to kill any remaining cancer cells and reduce the risk of recurrence.
Hormone therapy is mostly used after surgery to reduce the risk of breast cancer recurrence, though it may also be used before surgery to shrink the tumour or to treat the cancer that has spread to other parts of the body.
Immunotherapy helps the patientâ€™s immune system to target and attack breast cancer cells.
Radiation therapy is usually given after a lumpectomy or mastectomy to kill remaining cancer cells. Targeted drug therapy may be recommended by doctors in cases where breast cancer has spread to other areas of the body.
Impact of breast cancer on heart health
Breast cancer and heart disease can sometimes overlap in patients, and occurrence of one condition can lead to the development or recurrence of the other.
In some patients the radiation therapy for breast cancer may lead to issues such as blocked arteries, abnormal heart rhythms, etc. Similarly chemotherapy can sometimes weaken the heart and cause blood clots and other issues.
Medical research has also found that survivors of breast cancer, who are subsequently affected by cardiovascular disease, have an increased probability of cancer recurrence.
According to Dr Ramji Mehrotra, a few risk factors are common for both heart disease and breast cancer, and a heart-healthy lifestyle including proper diet and exercise must be adopted by women to minimise the chances of developing either disease.
Though breast cancer cannot be prevented totally, women can take certain precautions to reduce the risk of discovering it at an advanced stage.
All women over the age of 40 should get a mammogram screening done yearly. Doctors should be consulted with immediately whenever the women find any abnormality or changes in their breasts. Clinical breast exams can detect lumps that mammograms may not find.
Women with early-stage breast cancer can manage their condition successfully with treatment and live long, happy lives.