Breast cancer is one of the most common cancers in the world. There are more than 55,000 new cases in the UK each year, and the disease is claiming the lives of 11,500 women. In the United States, it hits 266,000 annually and kills 40,000. But what causes it and how can it be treated?
What is breast cancer?
Breast cancer develops from a cancer cell that develops in the lining of a duct or lobe in one of the breasts.
When the breast cancer has spread to the surrounding breast tissue it is called “invasive” breast cancer. Some people are diagnosed with “carcinoma on the spot,” where no cancer cells have grown beyond the duct or lobule.
Most cases develop in women over the age of 50 but younger women are sometimes affected. Breast cancer can develop in men although this is rare.
Staging means how big the cancer is and whether it has spread. Stage 1 is the earliest stage and stage 4 means the cancer has spread to another part of the body.
The cancer cells are graded from low, which means slow growth, to high, which grows rapidly. High-grade cancers are more likely to return after they have been first treated.
What causes breast cancer?
A cancerous tumor begins in one abnormal cell. The exact reason why a cell becomes cancerous is unclear. It is thought that something is damaging or altering certain genes in the cell. This makes the cell abnormal and multiplies “out of control”.
Although breast cancer can develop for no apparent reason, there are some risk factors that can increase the chance of developing breast cancer, such as genetics.
What are the symptoms of breast cancer?
The usual first symptom is a painless lump in the chest, although most mammals are not cancerous and are fluid-filled cysts that are benign.
The first place to which breast cancer usually spreads is the lymph nodes in the armpit. If this happens, you will develop swelling or a lump in your armpit.
How is breast cancer diagnosed?
- Initial assessment: A doctor examines the breasts and armpits. They can do tests like a mammogram, a special x-ray of the breast tissue that can indicate the possibility of tumors.
- Biopsy: A biopsy is when a small sample of tissue is removed from a part of the body. The sample is then examined under a microscope for abnormal cells. The sample can confirm or rule out cancer.
If you are confirmed to have breast cancer, further testing may be needed to assess whether it has spread. For example, blood tests, ultrasound scans of the liver or chest x-ray.
How is breast cancer treated?
Treatment options that can be considered include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and hormone treatment. A combination of two or more of these treatments is often used.
- Surgery: Breast-preserving surgery or the removal of the affected breast depending on the size of the tumor.
- Radiation therapy: A treatment that uses high-energy beams of radiation focused on cancerous tissue. This kills cancer cells, or prevents cancer cells from multiplying. It is mainly used in addition to surgery.
- Chemotherapy: Treatment of cancer with the use of anti-cancer drugs that kill cancer cells or prevent them from growing.
- Hormone treatment: Some types of breast cancer are affected by the “female” hormone estrogen, which can stimulate cancer cells to divide and multiply. Therapies that reduce the levels of these hormones or prevent them from working are often used in people with breast cancer.
How successful is treatment?
The outlook is best for those who are diagnosed when the cancer is still small and have not spread. Surgical removal of a tumor at an early stage can then give a good chance of cure.
The routine mammogram offered to women between the ages of 50 and 70 means that more breast cancers are being diagnosed and treated at an early stage.
For more information visit breastcancercare.org.uk, breastcancernow.org or www.cancerhelp.org.uk