Reading Time: 4 minutesWe look at facts and figures relating to this form of cancer, for a better understanding of the condition
Every year, the world marks 26 October as Pink Ribbon Day in recognition of the need for increased awareness about Breast Cancer, one of the leading causes of death in women internationally. Thanks to intense media campaigns and the endorsement of celebrity figures, breast cancer is no longer a taboo topic. However, as we learn more about this illness, the sheer overload of information can leave you feeling dizzy and confused, with many more unanswered questions. Here is a synopsis of the condition at a glance, with a few relevant FAQs.
What causes breast cancer?
Breast cancer is caused by certain changes in DNA. While some breast cancers may be caused by inherited changes in DNA, most are due to acquired changes. We don’t know exactly what causes breast cancer, but we do know that certain risk factors are linked to the disease. There are risk factors that cannot be changed like age, gender, family history and so on, but lifestyle choices that can lower the risk are having children at an early age, breastfeeding your babies, avoiding alcoholic drinks, not using birth control pills and hormone replacement therapy for prolonged periods of time, keeping fit by exercising regularly, and not being overweight.
Symptoms of breast cancer
Breast cancer may not show any symptoms in its early stages. A lump which might turn into cancer could initially be too small to be noticed or it might not cause any unusual changes. More often than not it is the mammogram, or an x-ray, that detects an abnormality, rather than an examination.
In some cases, the first sign could be a lump or a mass that can be felt. A lump that is hard but painless and is uneven to the touch is likely to be cancerous. However, a completely opposite study of tender, soft and evenly rounded lumps have turned out to be cancers. It is advisable that any unusual changes such as breast pain, swelling, skin irritation, dimpling, nipple pain, nipple discharge, a lump in the armpit, nipple turning inwards, redness, scaling and thickening of the breast skin be promptly investigated.
Causes of changes in the breast
Even if someone displays one or more of these symptoms, it doesn’t mean they definitely have breast cancer. Most lumps turn out to be benign. A vast majority of breast changes are hormonal, caused by glands that make a woman’s breast feel different at various times during the menstrual cycle. Cancer-like symptoms can also be apparent in the presence of a cyst in the breast. This is a sac filled with fluid and is more common in women aged 35-50 and in those taking hormone replacement therapy. Cysts do not normally change into cancer, but in rare cases they can have a cancer growing inside them or near them. An ultrasound is considered to be the best way of distinguishing a lump from a cyst. Another cause of changes in the breast, especially in younger women, is fibroadenoma which is a firm, fibrous lump and rarely changes into breast cancer, but if it becomes painful it is usually removed under general anaesthesia.
Types of breast cancer
Breast cancer begins in the ducts of the breast. If the breast cancer is invasive it means that the cancer cells can spread outside the ducts and into the surrounding tissues. Invasive cancer cells sometimes spread outside the breast area to other parts of the body. They do this by travelling through blood vessels or veins. Another type of breast cancer is the pre invasive cancer. This is the name given to abnormal or cancerous cells that inhabit the milk ducts. Paget’s disease is a rare type of breast cancer that begins in the milk ducts and spreads to the skin of the nipple.
Different stages of breast cancer
If the cancerous cells are contained in the armpit and breast region it is considered to be in the early stages, but if it has progressed to surrounding areas such as the chest, muscles, bones and skin but has not advanced further on in the body, it is regarded as locally advanced breast cancer. If the cancer cells have spread from the breast to other areas of the body like the lungs or bones, it is called metastatic breast cancer.
Who is at risk?
Women who have had two or more family members diagnosed with breast cancer before they turned 50, especially if they are close relatives like their sister, mother or daughter are considered to be at high risk. Those who have been previously diagnosed with invasive or pre invasive breast cancer or who have a mutation in genes, are at a higher risk of getting breast cancer. However, it is important to remember that just because a close relative had breast cancer, it does not mean that you will have it too. Most women who have breast cancer have no family history.
At a glance
All lumps are not suspicious only those that are painless, irregular and slowly enlarging
Pain and tenderness in the breast could be caused by hormonal changes in the menstrual cycle, pregnancy, stress or HRT.
The pill is safe to take, but prolonged, uninterrupted exposure could increase the risk of breast cancer.
Early detection means more options available and better chances of survival.
Wearing a bra at all times does not increase the chances of breast cancer.