Breast cancer is the second most common type of cancer for American women, with more than 250,000 new diagnoses every year. Among them, there are over 3.1 million breast cancer survivors in the United States. In recent years, survival rates among breast cancer patients have significantly increased, due to new technological advances, with therapists and scientists working together to find new ways to prevent, diagnose and treat this disease.
Breast cancer is defined as a malignant tumor that arises from the cells of the breasts. What not so many people know is that, although rare, this form of cancer can also affect men. Although the symptoms for male breast cancer are similar to the symptoms in women, it is typically diagnosed at a much more advanced stage, precisely because of how rare it happens.
The first and most common symptoms of breast cancer are the appearance of lumps or areas of thickened tissue in the breast or armpit area. Besides that, other symptoms may appear, such as pain in the breast or armpits that does not alleviate during the monthly cycle, change is the size or shape of the breast and discharge from the nipple. Other symptoms can affect the skin around the area, may women reporting pitting or redness of the skin, a rash around the nipples or peeling of the skin on the breast or nipple.
Stages and Types
According to the size of the tumor and how much it has spread, there are five stages of breast cancer:
- Stage 0: also known as ductal carcinoma in situ, where the cells are only showing within a duct and have not yet invaded surrounding tissues
- Stage 1: the tumor is about 2 cm across and has not affected any lymph nodes
- Stage 2: the size of the tumor is still about 2 cm across, but it has started to spread to the nearby nodes
- Stage 3: the tumor has grown up to about 5cm across and may have reached some lymph nodes
- Stage 4: the cancer has spread to other organs, especially liver or lungs.
Breast cancer can be invasive or non-invasive. Invasive breast cancer means the cancer cells break out from inside the ducts or lobules and reaches the nearby tissues, leading to an increased risk of spreading to other organs. When the cancer has not broken out to nearby tissue, it is called non-invasive. There are multiple types of breast cancer, some more common than the others, but the most frequent ones are:
- Ductal carcinoma in situ: this is the most common type of non-invasive breast cancer and, because it has not yet spread, it has a very high cure rate
- Invasive ductal carcinoma: this represents about 80% of invasive breast cancer cases and starts in the milk ducts of the breasts, spreading into the surrounding tissue.
- Invasive lobular carcinoma: about 10% of cases are invasive lobular carcinoma, starting in the milk-producing glands of the breast
Causes and Risks
The exact cause of breast cancer is still unknown, but there are many risk factors that can increase the chance of development. Cancer is mainly caused because of the excessive cell growth that happens uncontrollably in certain areas of the body.
Although the cause of development still remains unknown, there are some risk factors that can influence it, such as:
- Age: as one gets older, the chances of breast cancer increase. If at the age of 20, the chance of developing breast cancer in the next decade is as low as 0.6%, by the age of 70 it goes up to 3.84%.
- Family history: the chances of developing breast cancer are much higher for women who have a close relative diagnosed with this disease
- Breast tissue: women with dense breast tissue have a higher risk of developing breast cancer
- Alcohol consumption: studies have shown that women who consume over three drinks a day have a 1.5 times higher risk for developing breast cancer
Diagnosis usually occurs after women start showing symptoms or during routine check-ups. During a routine breast exam, the doctor will check the breasts for any form of lumps or other symptoms. Mammogram screening is the most efficient way to detect if there are any forms of breast cancer and can be used the detect it even though the patient has not reported any symptoms.
Thanks to the evolution of technology, mammograms have become more and more accurate. For example, the medical experts at Emu Health are performing a 3D mammography, meant to help evaluate multiple payers of the breasts, having much greater accuracy than 2D mammograms, lowering the risks of misdiagnose.
If a lump is discovered, a biopsy can be performed to discover if the cells are cancerous and what type of cancer it is. A biopsy is a surgical procedure that involves removing a sample tissue that is sent to the laboratory for analysis.
Diagnosis can also help staging the cancer, to determine the size, spreading and type of the tumor. This influences treatment and chances of recovery.
Although researchers are working non-stop to find new treatment methods, there are many factors that influence it. This includes the age and health of the patient, the type and stage of cancer and its sensitivity to hormones. The main options for treatment are:
- Surgery: depending on the diagnosis, there are multiple types of surgery that can be performed. If the tumor is small, a lumpectomy that involves removing the tumor and some healthy tissue around is enough to prevent it from spreading. If the case is more advanced, a mastectomy to remove the lobules, ducts, fatty tissue, nipple, areola and even some skin may be necessary.
- Hormone therapy: used in hormone-sensitive types of cancer to prevent recurrence after surgery
- Radiation therapy: the tumor is targeted with controlled doses of radiation that destroy the cancer cells. The need for radiation therapy is based on the type of cancer
- Chemotherapy: adjuvant chemotherapy involves the administration of cytotoxic drugs to kill cancer cells in case of recurrence or spread. Neo-adjuvant chemotherapy is used before surgery, to decrease the size of the tumor and make the removal easier.
- Biological therapy: some drugs, such as trastuzumab, lapatinib or bevacizumab can help destroy certain types of breast cancer.
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