Occurrence of breast cancer
Breast cancer is the most common cancer among women and the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths after lung cancer.
While several risk factors for breast cancer have been identified, its precise causes are still unclear. Prominent risk factors are advancing age and family history wherein more than one first-degree female relative, often premenopausal, had breast cancer. Scientists have also identified two genes linked to specific types of familial breast cancer.
Breastfeeding past one year is believed to lower the risk. Also, sensible lifestyle choices such as seeking good nutrition, exercise, and not smoking are always helpful.
Indications of breast cancer
Milk-producing glands, nerves, fatty and fibrous connective tissue, blood vessels, and lymphatic channels connecting the lymph nodes are all part of the structure of a normal human breast.
Breast cancer typically originates as a small, confined tumour (felt as a lump), or as calcium deposits, in the milk ducts or glands. Cancerous tissue within the breast comprises the patient’s cells that, like all cancers, have multiplied without control. Other signs may be – change in the breast’s or nipple’s shape or size, discharge, or a swelling in the armpit.
Early detection of breast cancer and action are important
Not all suspicious lumps are cancerous. Non-cancerous (benign) lumps in the breast could, however, be premalignant. Doctors can determine the nature of the tumour using a biopsy, wherein tissue samples from the lump are harvested and examined. Other scans and imaging tests in addition to biopsies help doctors “stage” cancer (Stage I-IV, with IV being the most advanced), and come up with a treatment strategy. Early detection, while the tumour is still localised, makes a world of difference in terms of treatment, treatment costs, and remission period.
Given time, the tumour may spread to the surrounding tissue as well.
When portions of cancerous tissue break away from the main tumour, spread and establish in other parts of the body, the cancer is said to have metastasized. According to the American Cancer Society, nearly 100% of women with Stage I breast cancer live at least five years, and many remain cancer-free following treatment. However, this number diminishes, more advanced the cancer is. The 5-year survival rate is unusually low for Stage IV cancers.
Treating Breast Cancer
Treating breast cancer calls for a multidisciplinary team of doctors and therapists, including a pathologist, oncologist, specialised cancer surgeons, nurses, and radiographer. A psychologist, physical therapist, occupational therapist, and a nutritionist may also be on the team.
Surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy are commonly used in combination to treat breast cancer. Hormone therapy or treatment with biological agents which target specific components of a cancer cell could be employed for particular types of cancers.
Breast Cancer Surgery
There are a few different types of surgeries for breast cancer, ranging from lumpectomy (where the lump and least possible surrounding tissue are taken out) to mastectomy (surgical removal of the entire breast and sometimes lymph nodes and part of the chest muscle). The breast can be spared or conserved with the former. Many patients go in for breast reconstruction following the latter.
Breast reconstruction surgery
The goal here is to recreate the breast and make it resemble the other breast as closely as possible. The reconstruction may be done at the same time as the mastectomy. Breast reconstructive surgeons work with breast implants or the patient’s tissue from a different part of the body.
Chemotherapy or “chemo” is where drugs toxic to cancerous cells are administered intravenously or by mouth. It is recommended under circumstances where the risk of cancer spreading or recurring is high (adjuvant chemotherapy). In the case of large tumours, it may be given before the surgery, to shrink the tumour and make its extraction easier (neo-adjuvant chemotherapy).
Side effects of chemotherapy include nausea and vomiting, loss of appetite, severe fatigue, hair loss and increased susceptibility to infections. Medication may be prescribed to reduce the severity of these side effects.
High-energy radiation is employed either after surgery to obliterate any remaining cancer cells, or paired with chemo to treat cancer that has spread. Side effects include fatigue, swelling, or a sunburn-like effect on treated areas.
Male Breast Cancer
This is a rare condition, accounting for about 1% of all cancers. There is often a familial link. The treatment options are the same as for breast cancer in women.
Support for Breast Cancer Patients
Being diagnosed with breast cancer can cause much emotional upheaval, and the treatment can cause tremendous physical and mental fatigue. In addition to turning to family and friends, patients may choose to join local or online cancer support groups.