Some common behaviors and conditions that can put you at risk include drinking alcohol, not exercising, and being overweight or obese after menopause.
A widespread disease, breast cancer is the second most common type of cancer among women in the United States, following skin cancer.
About 227,000 women in the U.S. will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year and about 40,000 women will die from it, according to the National Cancer Institute. Your likelihood of getting this disease increases with age. Most women are over 60 years old when they are diagnosed.
Although breast cancer also develops in men, it is very rare. This is probably because men have less of the female hormones estrogen and progesterone, which can promote breast cancer cell growth.It’s important that you get routine screenings for breast cancer, including a clinical breast exam and mammogram. These screenings can lead to early detection, which can greatly improve your prognosis. Be aware of any changes in and around your breast and talk to your health care provider about the current screening guidelines and what is recommended for you based upon your age and other risk factors.
First, let’s talk about cancer. Half of all men and one-third of all women in the U.S. will develop cancer during their lifetimes, according to The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Cancer is the general name for a group of more than 100 diseases. Although there are many kinds of cancer, all cancers are the product of abnormal cells that grow out of control and invade other tissues.
In general, cells are building blocks that comprise tissue. Cells that are normal grow and divide to form new cells for use by the body. If a normal cell grows old or gets damaged, it dies and a new cell will take its place. Sometimes, there is a flaw in this process. New cells form when the body doesn’t need them, and old or damaged cells don’t die as they are supposed to. The buildup of extra cells often forms a mass of tissue called a lump, growth, or tumor. A tumor can be benign, which means it is not cancer, or it can be malignant, which means it is cancer. Malignant tumors can be deadly. They can invade and damage surrounding organs and tissues and they can spread to other parts of the body. The spread of cancer is called metastasis. Although malignant tumors can often be removed, they sometimes grow back.
Breast Cancer Basics
Breast cancer usually begins in the form of a small, confined tumor or as calcium deposits. It then spreads to the lymph nodes or through the blood stream to other organs. The tumor may grow and invade tissue around the breast, such as the skin or chest wall. Different types of breast cancer grow and spread at different rates. One type may take years to spread while another type may grow and spread quickly.
Detecting Breast Cancer
The two most common tests used to detect breast cancer are clinical breast exams and mammograms. During a clinical breast exam, which you should have done yearly, your health care provider checks your breasts for differences in size or shape. The skin of your breasts will be examined for a rash, dimpling, or other abnormal signs. Your nipples may be squeezed to check for fluid. Your health care provider will also check the lymph nodes near the breast to see if they are enlarged.
If a lump is found, your health care provider will feel its size, shape, and texture, and check to see if it moves easily. A lump is generally the size of a pea before anyone can feel it. Benign lumps often feel different from cancerous ones. Lumps that are round, soft, smooth and movable are probably benign. A hard, oddly shaped lump that feels firmly attached within the breast is more likely to be cancer.
A mammogram is an X-ray picture of tissues inside the breast. Mammograms can often show a breast lump before it can be felt. They also can show a cluster of tiny specks of calcium. Lumps or specks can be from cancer, precancerous cells, or other conditions.
You should get regular screening mammograms to detect breast cancer early. Women in their 40s and older should have mammograms every one or two years.
When diagnosed, cancer is categorized into 4 stages depending on the size of the cancer, how far it has spread, and if it has invaded nearby tissues. This is called staging. If you have breast cancer, your cancer will be given a staging number from 0 to 4, with 4 being the most serious.
How do you know if you have breast cancer? It’s hard to tell since early breast cancer usually doesn’t have any symptoms. However, as the tumor grows and moves into nearby healthy tissue, you may feel pain or discomfort in your breasts. You may feel a lump or thickening in or near the breast or in the underarm area. Your breasts may feel irritated or itchy, have a nipple turned inward, or leak discharge other than breast milk. Also be aware of any dimpling or puckering in the skin of the breast as well as scaly, red or swollen skin on the breast.
Of course some of these symptoms may easily be attributed to conditions other than breast cancer. However, if you have any of these symptoms, you should consult your health care provider for an accurate diagnosis.
Women with breast cancer have many treatment options that are targeted toward their specific type of breast cancer. Surgery and radiation therapy are types of local therapy that remove or destroy cancer in the breast. Hormone therapy, chemotherapy, and targeted therapy destroys or controls cancer throughout the entire body.
There are some actions you can take right now to decrease your risk of having breast cancer and there are other risk factors are simply not in your control. For instance, the most significant risk factors for breast cancer are gender (being a woman) and age (growing older). About 1 out of 8 invasive breast cancers are found in women younger than 45, while about 2 of 3 invasive breast cancers are found in women age 55 or older, according to the American Cancer Society.
Up to 10 percent of breast cancers are thought to be linked to abnormal changes inherited from a parent, reports the American Cancer Society, and about 15 percent of women who get breast cancer have a family member diagnosed with it. Your risk of breast cancer practically doubles if you have a mother, sister, or daughter who has been diagnosed with breast cancer.
An estimated 85 percent of breast cancers occur in women who have no family history of breast cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. You can blame these breast cancers on genetic mutations that happen simply as a result of the aging process and life in general.
This leads us to those risk factors that we have some control over.
No one knows the exact causes of breast cancer. It’s a mystery as to why one woman develops the disease while another bypasses it. Still, there is evidence to suggest that certain risk factors overall may create an environment for breast cancer. The most common behaviors and conditions that can put you at risk include drinking alcohol, not exercising, and being overweight or obese after menopause.
Many other possible risk factors have been studied. For example, researchers are studying whether women who indulge in a high-fat diet or who are exposed to certain substances in the environment have an increased risk of breast cancer. Research suggests that at certain exposure levels, some of the chemicals in plastic products may cause cancer in people.
Risk factors, such as your genes and family history, cannot be controlled. However you can adopt some changes in your life to help you take control of your health and possibly ward off breast cancer. For example:
Limit alcohol. The more alcohol you drink, the greater your risk of developing breast cancer. You should have no more than one drink a day. If you are at high risk of getting breast cancer, you should avoid alcohol altogether.
Control your weight. Being overweight or obese increases the risk of breast cancer. This is especially true if obesity occurs later in life, particularly after menopause. While eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables isn’t proven to offer direct protection from breast cancer, it can help you maintain a healthy weight, which is key in breast cancer prevention. Choose foods and portion sizes that promote a healthy weight. Add more whole grains, fruits and vegetables to your shopping cart and limit refined grains and sugary, fatty snacks. Also limit processed and red meat.
Start exercising every day. It can be as simple as a daily walk. And don’t let weather deter you. If it gets too hot or too cold outside, head to the local mall or gym. Swimming is another great form of exercise that is low impact on the joints. Remember, an inactive lifestyle increases the risk of breast cancer. Make sure you check with your health care provider before starting an exercise program.
If you are taking hormone therapy, look into discontinuing it or at least lowering the dose and using it only temporarily. Long-term combination hormone therapy increases the risk of breast cancer. If you’re taking hormone therapy for menopausal symptoms, ask your doctor about other options.
It’s imperative that you get regular screening tests. Your health care provider may recommend regular self-breast exams and mammograms to detect early signs of breast cancer.
Finally, communicate with your health care provider. Ask questions, take notes, report any symptoms or concerns you may have, get all of your screenings, and don’t miss any scheduled medical appointments. When you work together with your health care provider, you can better manage breast cancer risk factors and receive the right kind of care when needed.
Although breast cancer is very much a serious and prevalent disease, death rates have been decreasing since 1990 — especially in women under the age of 50, according to the National Cancer Institute. These decreases are no doubt due in large part to treatment advances, earlier detection through screening, and increased awareness.