Definition and Overview

Breast cancer is a term that refers to the cancer that develops from and in tissues in the breast. Many individuals believe that breast cancer is exclusive to women, but there are also instances, although extremely rare, where male patients also develop this condition.

This type of cancer has different stages ranging from early detected and thus, curable cancer to a more serious metastatic breast cancer. Eighty percent of breast cancer in female patients is often diagnosed when an individual detects a suspicious lump in one or both breasts. Metastatic breast cancer is the type that spreads out to different parts of the body (other than the breasts, where it originated from) such as the brain, bones, liver, and lungs.

Causes of Condition

The main cause of breast cancer is the development of cancerous cells in the breast tissues. But there are many factors that can heighten the risk of an individual to develop the disease. These include advanced age and unhealthy, sedentary lifestyle.

Exposure to radiation and chemicals (such as pesticides, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, polychlorinated biphenyls, and organic solvents) has also shown to increase a patient’s risk of developing breast cancer.

Another risk factor is genetics. In a study, it was found that five percent of breast cancer cases is due to the mutation in the genes known as BRCA1 and BRCA2.

Breast cancer can affect women of any age. However, statistics released by the American Cancer Society, an organisation that promotes breast cancer awareness, revealed that women between the ages of 60 and 69 are the most affected. In the United States, a total of 75,840 breast cancer cases affecting 60-69-year-olds were recorded in 2015. The number includes both in situ and invasive cases. This is significantly higher when compared to breast cancer cases affecting 40-years-olds and below (12,150 cases).

Further research into the disease shows that medical conditions that involve changes in the breast, such as lobular carcinoma in situ and atypical ductal hyperplasia, also increase an individual’s risk of developing this disease.

Key Symptoms of Breast Cancer

During the early stages, breast cancer symptoms are very rare or even absent. Over time, however, the tumour develops and the patient starts observing signs and symptoms, including the following:

  • Abnormal swelling or lumps in the armpit area or around the collarbone.

  • Lumps in the breasts that might appear before or during the menstrual period, but do not disappear as they usually do. These lumps are often not accompanied by breast pain, but in some cases, touching the lumps leads to a prickling feeling. More often than not, these lumps feel thicker than the rest of the tissues in the breasts. In some breast cancer patients, the lumps are already present (and can only be seen through a mammogram) even before they are felt or seen by the naked eye.

  • The appearance of a dimple or indentation on the breast, which usually means that the tumour is present but not easily seen or felt.

  • Noticeable and persisting changes in the texture, size, temperature, and contour of the breasts.

  • An orange peel-like texture of the breasts, known as peau d’orange, is a common indicator of inflammatory breast cancer. Other signs of breast cancer include nipple inversion, redness, unusual warmth, swelling, itching, and breast pain.

  • One breast becomes significantly lower or larger than the other.

  • Nipple discharge.

  • Changes in the skin of the breast including eczema, discolouration, and flaking of the skin of the nipples.

  • Increased sensitivity and tingling or burning sensations in the breast.

  • Non-specific symptoms including weight loss, pain in the joints or bone, neurological problems, and jaundice.

Who to See and Types of Treatments Available

If you suspect the presence of breast cancer, you should consult your family doctor or general practitioner, who would then refer you for a mammogram or breast biopsy. A breast cancer specialist, typically working in the oncology department (every hospital worth its salt has its own oncology or cancer division), is the best medical professional to diagnose and treat this condition.

Breast cancer specialists are not just medical doctors—aside from finishing the required amount of schooling and training in medicine, they also complete special training on cancer diagnosis and treatment. Breast cancer specialists also have to pass national board examinations in order to be certified specialists in the field.

Types of Treatment Available

Breast cancer management has three major categories: surgery, radiotherapy, and medication.

  • Surgery is a form of breast cancer management that requires the physical removal of the breast tumour and the tissues surrounding it. Mastectomy, which is the most common surgical treatment for breast cancer, involves the complete removal of one or both breasts. Lumpectomy, on the other hand, is usually the less disfiguring option that involves the removal of a smaller part of the breast. Following the completion of the procedure, the patient may opt for breast reconstruction surgery to restore the form of the affected area.

  • Medication can be prescribed for the treatment of breast cancer. Prescribing a medication for this disease is known as adjuvant therapy when used in conjunction with surgery or neoadjuvant therapy when involving therapy (such as chemotherapy) and given before surgery is performed. Medication for breast cancer can include monoclonal antibodies and hormone-blocking agents.

  • Radiotherapy is usually performed after surgery. The affected site and nearby lymph nodes are exposed to radiation to completely destroy microscopic cancer cells that were not removed during surgery.

  • National Breast Cancer Foundation.

  • National Cancer Institute.

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