What is Breast Cancer?
Breast cancer is a result of cancerous tumors growing inside the breast. Although men can get breast cancer, it is far more common in women. (1)
Cancer can also spread to the breast from another part of the body. Similarly, cancer in the breast can advance to affect other areas and systems. (2)
The risks of developing breast cancer are great, they include the following: age, genetics, sedentary lifestyles, being overweight or even prolonged hormone therapy and oral contraception. (3)
Breast cancer develops when the normal cells in your breast turn cancerous. This is caused by DNA changing or mutating.
There are different forms of breast cancer which all depend upon what area they originate from.
One fundamental importance is to regularly examine your breasts. This way you can keep track of anything unusual.
Telltale symptoms of breast cancer can involve:
Swelling and Pain
Gradual or sudden swelling in the breast can be a sign of cancer. Sometimes, nearby lymph nodes can begin to swell as the malignant tumor grows.
You might notice sensitivity in the lymph nodes under your arms or by your collarbones. Swelling in the breast can be accompanied by discomfort. (4)
The most commonly recognized breast cancer symptom is a lump. A breast cancer lump can be hard and irregular or it can be soft and rounded.
The lump may be tender or be painless to the touch. Although some breast lumps can be benign, it is important to get them checked out just to be safe. (5)
Breast cancer can affect the skin of your breast. Any unusual changes to the skin on your nipples and breasts may be a symptom.
This can manifest as reddened skin that may be scaly. The skin on your breasts, nipples, or both can start to thicken. (6)
Abnormal discharge from the nipple can be an early warning of breast cancer. The nipple on the affected breast may discharge a white or bloody substance. (7)
Breast cancer is classified according to size, location and whether it has spread. Staging breast cancer is important to develop the ideal treatment strategy.
The stages of breast cancer progress from 0 to 5: (8)
Your breasts and entirely free of cancer and abnormal cell growth.
At this stage 0, breast cancer is considered non-invasive. This means abnormal and malignant cells are confined to the location where they originally began growing.
Surrounding breast tissue and areas are totally unaffected.
This type of cancer is now classified as invasive. Cancerous cells have begun to attack normal tissue in nearby areas. There are two subsets of this stage, stage 1A and stage 1B.
Stage 1A cancer is defined as a tumor smaller than 2 centimeters. The cancer is confined and hasn’t spread to any lymph nodes.
Stage 1B cancer can describe one of two scenarios. The first can be explained as a tumor within the breast (maximum 2 centimeters) and malignant cells in the lymph nodes.
The second scenario is that the breast is tumor-free. However, cancerous cells have formed in the lymph nodes.
Stage 2 consists of two potential categories of invasive cancer, stage 2A or stage 2B. Cancer at this stage can advance to lymph nodes under your arms and near your breastbone.
At stage 2A, there are three possible situations. The first is the presence of a tumor between 2 to 5 centimeters that is in the breast only.
The second is a malignant mass up to 2 centimeters that also affects nearby lymph nodes. The third option is that there is no tumor, but cancerous cells in 1 to 3 lymph nodes.
Stage 2B describes 2 to 5 centimeter tumors and cancer cells that have spread to surrounding lymph nodes to varying degrees.
2B can also detail a tumor that does not impact the lymph nodes but is over 5 centimeters.
By now, the cancer is highly invasive (aggressive). This stage includes 3A, 3B, and 3C.
Tumors at stage 3A can be small, large, or nonexistent. Cancerous cells have spread to nearby lymph nodes, possibly affecting those in the breastbone.
Stage 3B involves tumors affecting the chest wall and breast skin. The cancer may target breast bone lymph nodes, and cause swelling or ulcers.
At stage 3C, the cancer has spread drastically. It can affect 10 or more nearby lymph nodes, your chest wall, and your skin.
Stage 4 is breast cancer that has metastasized (spread) to other areas as well as lymph nodes. It may affect your organs such the lungs, liver, or brain.
Breast cancer can be diagnosed if you report potential warning symptoms. Your doctor may also discover a lump or abnormality during a clinical exam of your breasts.
A mammogram is an x-ray picture exclusively of the breasts. It is considered the best tool for diagnosing breast cancer as early as possible. (9)
If your doctor spots anything unusual in your mammogram, further tests will be performed. You may have to undergo an MRI scan or molecular breast imaging (MBI).
MBI is the use of a special radioactive device and scanner. When the breasts are examined with the device, cancerous areas light up on the scanner.
Finally, to be certain of the results doctors will perform a biopsy. A sample of cancerous tissue will be taken from your breast and examined in a laboratory. (10)
Treatment plans can include one or more of these options:
Surgery is usually a first treatment option for breast cancer. The type of surgery you will have depends on the cancer stage.
For lower stage cancers, the tumor and nearby tissue are removed. Higher stage cancers can warrant a mastectomy, which is the complete removal of all breast tissue.
If affected, lymph nodes can be removed or cancerous tissue dissected. (11)
Radiation therapy involves targeting cancerous cells with precise radiation. Your doctors may use one or more variations of this therapy.
Treatment can last up to 7 weeks over up to 5 sessions weekly. Although radiation therapy is not painful, it can cause temporary side effects. These may include skin irritation and fatigue. (14)
Chemotherapy is the use of cancer-fighting drugs to reduce the growth of cancer cells. One or more chemotherapy drugs can be used depending on your case.
This treatment is usually used for early and advanced stage breast cancer. For earlier cancers, it can be used after surgery to guarantee no cancerous cells survive.
In the case of advanced breast cancer, the aim of chemotherapy is to kill off or injure as many malignant cells as possible. (15)
Chemotherapy is administered through your blood. This means it circulates through your entire body, and can cause unpleasant side effects.
These can include: diarrhea, hair loss and vomiting, fatigue, and weight changes. (16)
Hormone receptors are found in cells inside the breast. These receptors respond to hormone signals, which cause cells to grow.
Unfortunately, cancerous cells can have these receptors too. Similarly, these abnormal cells will grow in response to hormones.
A hormone-receptor-positive cancer is receptive to estrogen, progesterone, or both. The majority of breast cancers tend to fall under this category.
High levels of estrogen can provoke malignant growth in these types of cancers.
Hormone therapy lowers or blocks estrogen production in your body.
In turn, this can shrink or reduce hormone-receptor-positive cancer growth. (17)
What is breast cancer? Breast cancer is a type of cancer that affects the breast tissue.
What are the signs of breast cancer? The signs of breast cancer include swelling, pain and skin irritation. Other symptoms include a lump in the breast and unusual nipple discharge.
How do you develop breast cancer? Breast cancer develops when abnormal cells grow inside the breast. It can also occur if cancer spreads to the breast from a different site in your body.
How are you diagnosed with breast cancer? If your doctor suspects breast cancer, you will be thoroughly examined. This process usually includes a physical exam of the breasts, imaging tests, and a biopsy.
What is the best treatment for breast cancer? The best treatment for breast cancer depends on individual case. Your doctor may perform surgery or recommend radiotherapy, chemotherapy, or hormonal treatment.
Is breast cancer considered a disability? If your breast cancer is advanced or has returned after treatment you can qualify for disability. Advanced breast cancer is defined as having spread to the skin chest or lymph nodes inside the breast. (18)
What are the long term complications of breast cancer? Radiation therapy and chemotherapy can affect fertility and bone health. These treatments also raise your risk of heart disease and complications later on. (19)
Is there any cure for breast cancer? Depending on the stage of your cancer, you can undergo treatment to destroy the abnormal cells completely. Unfortunately, there is a risk your cancer may return. (20)
Is breast cancer life threatening? Yes, later stage breast cancer can be life threatening. Patients with stage 4 breast cancers have a 22 percent chance of surviving 5 years after diagnosis. (21)
A diagnosis of breast cancer can be frightening. As with most cancers, catching it as early as possible improves your prognosis.
Regularly examining your breasts can increase the chances of spotting anything unusual before it develops.
Breast exams are an effective way to screen for breast cancer between doctor visits.
Learn to become familiar with the appearance and feel of your breasts. If you witness any changes you can bring them to your doctor’s attention sooner rather than later. (22)