It’s breast cancer awareness month, and during this time, the goal is to raise awareness and educate people across the globe on the most common cancer, both in developed and developing countries. (1)
With regular checks and self-examinations, early detection of breast cancer can save thousands of lives each year.
Here you’ll find out everything you need to know about breast cancer—what it is, what signs to look out for, how to treat it, and how to prevent it.
What Is Breast Cancer?
Breast cancer is cancer that forms in the cells of the breast. The cancer cells form a tumor that can usually be detected by an X-ray or felt as a lump. Breast cancer occurs most often in women, although men can develop breast cancer too.
Cancer that originated in the breast and has spread to another part of the body is still referred to as breast cancer.
Most breast cancers are ductal cancers—they begin in the ducts that carry milk to the nipple. Some breast cancers are lobular cancers—they start in the glands that make breast milk. A smaller number of breast cancers begin in the breast tissue, and they are called either sarcomas or lymphomas.
Ways To Detect Breast Cancer
Through regular checkups and self-examinations, you may be able to catch breast cancer at an early stage. The sooner the cancer is detected, the better the prognosis.
It is important to note that while many types of breast cancer cause lumps, not at all do. Also, not all new lumps found in the breast are cancerous, although they should all be examined. While some lumps are benign, they may increase a woman’s chance of getting breast cancer.
These are the ways in which breast cancer can be detected:
Breast Self-Examination (BSE)
Every woman should perform a breast self-examination once a month. Women who examine their breasts every month become aware of how the breasts feel and are more likely to notice small changes like masses, lumps, or nipple discharge—all early signs of breast cancer. The best time to do a BSE is a week after your period when your breasts are not swollen or tender.
Yearly Examination by Doctor
Once a year, your doctor or general practitioner should examine both breasts and armpits. The doctor will feel the lymph nodes in your armpit and check for lumps or abnormalities.
A mammogram is an X-ray that examines breast tissue. It can detect breast cancer up to two years before a lump is felt. The age at which you start having mammograms is a decision made by your doctor based on your personal history. All women over the age of 40 should have a mammogram every one to two years, but your doctor may recommend starting earlier if you have a personal or family history of cancer.
If a lump is detected, a breast ultrasound can be used to determine whether it is a solid mass or a fluid-filled cyst.
A breast cell biopsy is a way to make a definitive breast cancer diagnosis. Once a lump is detected, the doctor uses a specialized needle guided by image testing to extract tissue from the area. The samples are then sent to a laboratory, where they are analyzed to determine whether they are cancerous. A biopsy will also tell what types of cells are involved in breast cancer, the aggressiveness, and whether the cancer cells have hormone receptors.
Breast Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)
A breast MRI uses magnetic and radio waves to capture multiple images of the breast. This test is usually performed after a person has received a breast cancer diagnosis. It is done to get more information about cancer and to determine the extent of the disease. When a woman is considered a high risk for breast cancer, a breast MRI may be performed alongside a mammogram as a screening tool for detecting breast cancer.
How to Do A Breast Self-Examination
According to the National Breast Cancer Foundation Inc., 40 percent of diagnosed breast cancers are detected by women who feel a lump. (2)
It’s important to establish a regular routine for breast self-examination. The following are the official instructions for a BSE published by the National Breast Cancer Foundation, Inc.
If you do find a lump during a BSE, don’t panic. Breast lumps are normal, and they often come and go during the course of a cycle. Simply make an appointment with your doctor for a checkup if you are concerned.
Breast Cancer Signs and Symptoms
In order to know if your breasts look or feel different, you must first become acquainted with your breasts’ “normal.” That’s why breast self-examinations are so important.
Different people have different symptoms of breast cancer, and some people do not have any symptoms at all. Some warning signs include:
- New lump in the breast or armpit
- Swelling of all or part of the breast
- Skin irritation
- Inverted nipple
- Breast or nipple pain
- Redness, scaliness, or thickening of the skin
- Nipple discharge (other than breast milk)
Diagnosis and Staging of Breast Cancer
Once a breast cancer diagnosis is made using the methods mentioned above, your doctor will then do further screening to determine the stage of cancer. After the stage is known, your doctor will discuss a treatment plan best fit for you.
There are four stages of breast cancer. (3)
- Stage 1 Breast Cancer. Stage 1 is an early stage of breast cancer. It means that the cancer is small and only in the breast tissue or the lymph nodes close to the breast. It has not yet spread outside the breast.
- Stage 2 Breast Cancer. Stage 2 is also an early stage of breast cancer. It means that the cancer is found only in the breast tissue or lymph nodes nearby.
- Stage 3 Breast Cancer. Stage 3 is called locally advanced breast cancer. It means that cancer has spread to the lymph nodes close to the breast, to the skin of the breast, or to the chest wall.
- Stage 4 Breast Cancer. Stage 4 is called advanced cancer, or metastatic breast cancer. It means that cancer has spread to other parts of the body, such as the bones, lungs, liver, or brain.
Breast Cancer Treatment
Breast cancer treatment is an entirely individual thing. Based on the stage, type, size, and placement of breast cancer as well as whether the cancer cells are sensitive to hormones, your doctor will present a treatment option that he or she thinks will work best for you. Your doctor will also take into account your personal and family history, your overall health, and your preferences.
Most women with breast cancer will undergo surgery followed by another type of treatment, such as chemotherapy, radiation, or hormone therapy.
A lumpectomy is a procedure in which just the tumor and a small margin of healthy breast tissue are removed. A mastectomy is a surgical produce in which the whole breast is removed. This usually includes the lobules, ducts, fatty tissue, and some skin. Some women may choose to have both breasts removed if cancer is found in one breast. This usually happens in cases where there is a genetic predisposition or strong family history of breast cancer.
In addition to surgery, the following treatments may be used:
High-powered beams of energy are used to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. The radiation therapy can be external—done using a machine that aims radiation at cancer—or internal, given orally or intravenously.
Anticancer drugs are given either orally or intravenously to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. The drugs travel through the bloodstream and seek out cancer cells. Chemotherapy may be used after surgery to kill any cancer cells that may have been left behind, before surgery to shrink the tumor so that it can be more easily removed, or as the main treatment in cases where cancer has spread.
Some types of breast cancers are sensitive to hormones. Hormone therapy—or hormone-blocking therapy—uses medication to block hormones from attaching to cancer cells, to stop the body from making estrogen after menopause, or to stop hormone production in the ovaries.
Targeted Therapy Drugs
Different types of cancer cells are triggered to grow and thrive on different things. As research advances, we learn more about what makes certain cancer cells grow. Targeted therapy drugs block the growth and spread of cancer cells. For example, one in five women with breast cancer has HER2-positive breast cancer, which means that the cancer cells have too much of a growth hormone called HER2. A number of drugs have been developed to target this protein and stop cancer growth.
This specialized medical care focuses on pain relief and relief from other symptoms. It can be used while undergoing aggressive treatments, if a person decides not to undergo treatment, or at the end stages of a serious illness.
Preventing Breast Cancer
The best way to prevent any type of cancer is to live a healthy, clean lifestyle. Quit smoking, limit alcohol intake, maintain a healthy weight, and exercise regularly. Eating a healthy diet plays a major role in overall health and cancer prevention. The following steps can help you to naturally prevent breast cancer.
Eat High-Quality, Nutrient-Rich Foods.
Foods that are high in antioxidants—such as dark leafy greens, berries, and colorful fruits and vegetables as well as certain herbs and spices—are proven to have powerful anticancer benefits. (4) Specific foods that are especially powerful when it comes to cancer prevention include garlic, turmeric, cinnamon, broccoli, blueberries, spinach, flaxseed, green tea, olive oil, and fatty fish.
Avoid Cancer-Causing Foods.
Stay away from carcinogenic—or cancer-causing—foods and foods that increase oxidative stress in the body, such as alcoholic beverages (more than seven drinks per week increases your risk of breast cancer), processed meats, fried foods, hydrogenated oils, refined carbohydrates, and foods that have been blackened or charred. (5)
Studies show that regular physical activity can help to lower the risk of breast cancer. In fact, on study showed that insufficient physical activity is responsible for 9% of breast cancer cases. (6) Aim for 300 minutes of exercise per week for optimal health.
There are certain nutrients that have been directly linked to cancer prevention because they support optimal functioning of certain systems and promote detoxification. Consider supplementing with Vitamins A, C, and D, folate, selenium, fish oil, curcumin, and lycopene.
Avoid Hormone Therapy.
Hormone therapy increases a woman’s chance of getting breast cancer. If you are taking hormone therapy for menopause symptoms, you may consider talking to your doctor about other ways to manage symptoms with nonhormonal therapies and medications.
Limit Exposure to Environmental Toxins and Hormones.
We are constantly bombarded with toxins that are being pumped into our environment. They’re present in our air, water, soil, food, and in some of the containers and packaging we use. Avoid these toxins by eating organic produce, drinking filtered water, and using BPA-free products.
Studies show that breastfeeding may offer protection against breast cancer. The longer a woman breastfeeds, the more protection she has against pre- and postmenopausal breast cancer. (7)
In addition, try to limit your exposure to radiation and environmental pollution as much as possible.
With increased awareness and education, we can help to reduce the number of deaths per year due to breast cancer.
The earlier it is detected, the better the prognosis for breast cancer. Stay on top of your breast self-examinations and make sure to attend your yearly examination by your doctor as well as your regular mammograms. If you do notice any changes in your breasts, make an appointment with your doctor as soon as possible.