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Breast Cancer 101: Understanding the Basics

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Breast Cancer

Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer in women. It is also the second leading cause of cancer death in women and can be treated effectively if detected early.

It is a type of cancer that develops in the breast cells and can occur in men and women but is most common in women. There are several different types of breast cancer, namely,

  • Ductal carcinoma (cancer that begins in the milk ducts).
  • Lobular carcinoma (cancer that starts in the lobules).
  • Inflammatory breast carcinoma (a rare and aggressive form of cancer that affects the skin and lymph vessels of the breast).

Signs and symptoms of breast cancer

The signs and symptoms can vary depending on the type, stage, and individual. However, some common signs and symptoms include,

  • A lump or thickening in the breast or underarm area. This is the most common symptom of breast cancer and is often the first thing that leads a person to seek medical attention.
  • Changes in the size or shape of the breast. This can include swelling, shrinkage, or asymmetry of the breast.
  • Changes to the skin of the breast, such as dimpling or redness.
  • Nipple discharge or inverted nipples.
  • Pain or tenderness in the breast or armpit.
  • A change in how the skin on the breast or nipple looks or feels, such as puckering or dimpling.

It is important to note that not all lumps or changes in the breast are cancerous, and many benign conditions can also cause these symptoms. Breast cancer can also develop without any noticeable symptoms. Therefore women must undergo regular breast screening and mammograms to detect the disease early.

What are the risk factors for developing a breast cancer

Several risk factors can increase a person’s chances of developing cancer. Some of the most common risk factors are,

  • Being female: Women are at a higher risk than men, although men can also develop the disease.
  • Increasing age: The risk of cancer increases as a person ages.
  • Family history: A person’s risk of developing breast cancer increases if they have a family history of the disease, especially if a close relative (such as a mother, sister, or daughter) has been diagnosed with it.
  • Genetics: Genetic mutations such as BRCA1 and BRCA2 can increase a person’s risk of developing cancer.
  • Hormonal factors: Certain hormonal factors can increase a person’s risk of developing breast cancer, such as starting menstruation at a young age, going through menopause at a later age, and never giving birth.
  • Lifestyle factors: Factors such as alcohol consumption, being overweight or obese, lack of physical activity, and exposure to certain environmental toxins can also increase a person’s risk of developing cancer.

It’s important to note that having a risk factor does not mean you will develop breast cancer. Many people with risk factors never develop the disease, and many who develop it have no known risk factors.

Early detection

Early detection of breast cancer is crucial for improving the chances of successful treatment. Several methods can be used to detect it in the early stages, including,

  • Mammography: A mammogram is an X-ray of the breast that detect small tumours before they can be felt. This is the most commonly used method of breast cancer screening. Women should have regular mammograms starting at 50 or earlier if they have a family history of the disease or other risk factors.
  • Clinical breast exam: A healthcare professional will examine the breast to feel for lumps or other changes. Women should have regular clinical breast exams as part of their healthcare routine, starting in their 20s.
  • Breast self-examination (BSE): Women are encouraged to regularly examine their breasts for lumps or changes. BSE is best done 7-10 days after the end of your period, or the same day of the month for those who don’t have a menstrual cycle
  • Breast MRI: This imaging test uses magnetic fields and radio waves to create detailed images of the breast. This can be used as a diagnostic tool for women with a high risk of breast cancer or as an additional screening tool for women who have already been diagnosed with the disease.

It’s important to note that these screening methods can detect breast changes that might indicate cancer. Still, they are not diagnostic tools that confirm the presence of cancer. A biopsy may be required to confirm a diagnosis of breast cancer.

Regular screenings and check-ups are important in the early detection of this type of cancer. The earlier the breast cancer is detected, the higher the chance of successfully treating it.

Type treatments depend on the stage of breast cancer

Treatment options will depend on the type and stage of cancer, the individual’s overall health and personal preferences. Some of the most common treatment options are:

  • Surgery: Surgery is often the first line of treatment. Several types of surgery can be used, such as Lumpectomy (removal of the cancerous tumour and a small surrounding margin of healthy tissue), mastectomy (removal of the entire breast), and axillary lymph node dissection (removal of lymph nodes in the armpit) Depending on the stage and characteristics of cancer; breast reconstruction can be an option after surgery.
  • Radiation therapy: Radiation therapy uses high-energy beams to kill cancer cells. It is often used after surgery to destroy any remaining cancer cells and reduce the risk of recurrence.
  • Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer cells. It is often used to shrink large tumours before surgery and reduce the recurrence risk after surgery.
  • Hormone therapy uses drugs to block the effects of hormones, such as estrogen, on cancer cells. It is often used to treat cancers sensitive to hormones, such as hormone receptor-positive breast cancer.
  • Targeted drug therapy: Targeted therapy uses drugs to target specific proteins or genetic mutations in cancer cells. It is often used to treat HER2-positive breast cancer.
  • Immunotherapy: Immunotherapy uses drugs to help the immune system fight cancer. It’s still in the early stage of use for breast cancer treatment, but it is showing promising results.
  • Palliative Care aims to improve the patient’s quality of life by managing symptoms, treatment side effects and emotional distress.

A patient’s care team typically includes a surgeon, medical oncologist, radiation oncologist, and other specialists working together to develop an individualized treatment plan.

The Bottom Line

Breast cancer has become a leading cause of death among women globally. However, it can be detected early and effectively treated early.

Regular screening is important because it allows doctors to find breast cancer before symptoms develop when treatment is most successful. Suppose you have any concerns about your breast health or notice unusual changes in your breasts (such as lumps or discharge). In that case, you must see your doctor immediately so they can examine and investigate to rule out any suspicious growth.

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