What You Need To Know About Breast Cancer

What is breast cancer?

Breast cancer is a type of cancer that develops in breast cells within the breast tissue. Cancer, in general, is when genetic mutations affect cell growth, causing the cells to divide and multiply at a fast or unpredictable rate. Breast cancer, therefore, refers to mutations and abnormal growth of the breast cells. 

The cancer tends to form in the lobules or ducts within the breast tissue. Lobules are the glands inside of the breast that produce milk during pregnancy, while ducts are the tissues that connect the lobules to the nipple to deliver milk. Cancer can occur in the fatty tissue of the breast as well as connective tissue.

The different types of breast cancers include:

  • Metastatic breast cancer

  • Inflammatory breast cancer

  • Triple-negative breast cancer

  • Fibrocystic breast disease

  • Invasive lobular carcinoma

  • Invasive ductal carcinoma

  • Recurrent breast cancer

  • Male breast cancer

Metastatic breast cancer

Any type of breast cancer that has advanced to stage IV or has spread to other vital organs in the body. This type of cancer is dangerous but treatable.

Inflammatory breast cancer

Usually a form of invasive ductal carcinoma that causes swelling, redness, pain, and thickening of the skin. 

Triple-negative breast cancer

A type of cancer that does not have estrogen or progesterone receptors and usually does not create HER2 proteins in large amounts, as is typical of other forms of breast cancer. As a result, this type of cancer often comes up negative for the three main breast cancer tests. 

Fibrocystic breast disease

A non-cancerous breast condition that causes lumps and pain. As it shares similar symptoms with inflammatory breast cancer, a mammogram is advisable to determine whether the patient has cancer.

Invasive lobular carcinoma

A type of breast cancer that targets the glands of the breast and is unlikely to cause a lump. 

Invasive ductal carcinoma

The most common type of breast cancer that affects breast milk ducts.

Recurrent breast cancer

Any type of breast cancer that recurs within five to ten years after treatment. While uncommon, it can occur in anyone previously diagnosed with breast cancer. 

Male breast cancer

A rare type of breast cancer that affects the breast tissue of individuals born with male sex characteristics, including symptoms almost identical to breast cancers found in women.

Symptoms

Breast cancer results in an average of 43,000 deaths per year. However, advanced treatments have improved the survival rate significantly.

Understanding how breast cancer forms and recognizing the signs and symptoms of the disease have also helped improve early detection and survival rates. 

Women of all ages should perform monthly breast exams on themselves to check for common cancer symptoms. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Abnormal or hard lumps

  • Nipple inversion or discharge

  • Change in skin texture 

  • Singular breast enlargement

Breast lumps, pain, and swelling that won’t go away even after you have had your next menstrual period could be a sign that it’s time to schedule an exam with your doctor, who will determine if further testing is needed. 

Keep in mind that if you have some or all of the signs and symptoms listed above, it does not automatically mean you have breast cancer. They could be a sign of another underlying health issue that needs to be addressed. 

If you have a family history of breast cancer and believe you are experiencing symptoms, make sure you speak with your doctor.  

It is also recommended to start scheduling yearly mammograms when you turn 30 if breast cancer does run in your family. Otherwise, the typical age to start is between 40 and 45. Learn more about the steps you can take to help prevent breast cancer.

Remember that early detection is vital, so if you feel that something is off, don’t hesitate to get examined by your doctor. 

Keep reading about the early warning signs of breast cancer.

Causes

Breast cancer has a number of causes and risk factors that lead to the disease developing. These include genetic factors, such as sex, age, personal and family history, breast density, and hormones, as well as lifestyle factors.

Sex

While breast cancer can develop in men, women are most at risk.

Age

Second to sex, age is the most significant risk factor for developing breast cancer. Risk increases with age, with women over 50 who have gone through menopause accounting for over 80% of all cases.

History of breast cancer

Having a family history of breast cancer is a risk factor, as some women can inherit a gene mutation from either parent that can put them at a higher risk of developing breast cancer themselves. 

About half of all breast cancer cases result from these hereditary gene mutations, which include: BRCA1 or BRCA2 (most commonly), ATM, CHEK2, PALB2, TP53, PTEN, CDH1, and STK11.

If you have previously been diagnosed with breast cancer, there is also a chance it will return (recurrent breast cancer), so it is important to have regular check-ups to identify any lumps or abnormal cell growth.

Breast density

Breasts are composed of glandular tissue that is made up of thousands of tiny glands called lobules that produce milk. Glandular tissue has a higher concentration of breast cells than other breast tissue, making it denser.

Younger women have denser breasts, as glandular tissue is replaced with fat as we age. Denser breasts are correlated with a higher chance of developing breast cancer.

Hormones

Higher levels of estrogen can increase breast cancer risk. Whether you have been pregnant or not also has an impact, with a higher risk for women who have never given birth or have their first child after the age of 30.

Contraceptive pills and hormone replacement therapy may also increase the risk of breast cancer in some women.

Lifestyle

Maintaining good health is recommended for reducing your risk of breast cancer. Being overweight or obese, smoking, drinking alcohol, and eating an unhealthy diet all contribute towards increased breast cancer risk. Another factor is exposure to radiation, such as x-rays or CT scans, and various industrial or environmental chemicals.

Keep learning about the known risk factors and causes of breast cancer to better understand your risk level. 

Treatments

There are a number of effective treatments and therapies available for breast cancer patients. Most people will receive a combination of treatments for the best possible results. 

The most common option is surgery, including mastectomy, lumpectomy, and reconstructive surgeries.

If you have early-stage breast cancer, your doctor may recommend radiation therapy. Radiation therapy uses x-rays to kill cancer cells and prevent them from spreading to other parts of the body.

One of the most well-known treatments is chemotherapy, which involves administering powerful drugs orally or intravenously to kill cancer cells. 

Hormone therapy may also help those diagnosed with hormone-receptor-positive breast cancers. This form of treatment works to stop cancer cell growth and spread by blocking the hormones (estrogen and progesterone) that cancer cells attach to. 

Targeted therapy is an umbrella term for the wide range of medications that enter the bloodstream to kill cancer cells. As this therapy specifically targets cancer cells without affecting healthy cells, it may result in fewer side effects than chemotherapy.

Immunotherapy is treatment resulting in fewer side effects than other treatments, as it works by boosting the body's immune system to fight cancer.

Learn about each treatment option for breast cancer patients today, including side effects and general recovery times. 

Prevention

While we cannot control many risk factors, such as the density of our breast tissue, a family history of breast cancer, and genetic mutations, there are several things we can do to help prevent breast cancer

For example, being more physically active and maintaining a healthy weight, avoiding hormone therapy, not smoking, limiting your alcohol intake, and breastfeeding can all help to reduce your risks of developing breast cancer.

Additionally, regular breast screenings, such as self-exams and mammograms, can help to detect early signs of breast cancer. While mammograms aren’t typically performed until after the age of 40, it is recommended that you perform self-breast examinations at least once a month to detect any lumps or changes in your breast tissue. 

Mammograms are a type of x-ray that takes pictures of your breast and can detect tumors when they’re very small and still in the early stages. Diagnostic mammograms are given to those already exhibiting signs of breast cancer or who have already been diagnosed with breast cancer but are now in remission.

Even though breast cancer mortality rates are only second to lung cancer, there are several things you can do to lower your risk of developing breast cancer or catching it early so that it is treatable.  Learn about how you can help reduce your risk of developing breast cancer.

Awareness

Globally, breast cancer is one of the most common types of cancer, claiming the lives of hundreds of thousands of women every year. But this outlook can be improved with increased awareness, early detection, and treatment

Breast cancer awareness is key to fighting this disease and contributing to ground-breaking medical developments. For example, detection in stage I of the disease offers a 100% survival rate, compared to a 30% survival rate when diagnosed at stage IV. 

Increased awareness also empowers patients, survivors, and loved ones affected by the disease through support groups, educational resources, and access to clinical trials. Breast cancer awareness also opens the doors for donors to make a difference through medical research and support systems. 

Increasing breast cancer awareness is essential to help women today—and in the future. 

Read more about breast cancer awareness and learn how you can get involved here.

Costs

Whether you or a loved one are facing a breast cancer diagnosis, the last thing you want to think about is money. Unfortunately, cancer care in the United States comes with a price tag. 

The average monthly pre-tax income in the US is $3,600¹, just a third of the cost of some chemotherapy and immunotherapy therapies. 

For many women in the US, financial planning becomes a significant and necessary part of the treatment process. Research suggests that your financial standing can influence your surgical decisions. 

The best way to manage your finances is to make sure you have a comprehensive health insurance policy. Charitable organizations, government Medicaid, and activist groups may be able to provide you with support if this is not an option. 

For patients undergoing breast cancer treatment, clinical trials also offer an opportunity to access potentially life-changing new drugs without the associated costs. 

Whatever your financial situation, the most important thing to remember is that your health comes first. 

Learn more about reducing the financial pressures of a breast cancer diagnosis.

Statistics

In the US, about 2% of women will be diagnosed with breast cancer during their lifetime, and nearly 40% of survivors will suffer early-stage symptoms.

The different types of breast cancer tend to share a similar five-year relative survival rate at each stage, per statistics¹ from The American Cancer Society based on individuals diagnosed with breast cancer between 2010 and 2016.  The relative five-year survival rates can be broken down by type and stage:

By type: 

  • 99% for localized breast cancer

  • 86% for regional breast cancer

  • 28% for distant breast cancer.

By stage: 

  • 100% for stage 0

  • 98-100% for stage I

  • 90-99% for stage II

  • 66-98% for stage III

  • 29% for stage IV

Age is also an important factor, with individuals aged between 45-84 being the most likely to die from the disease compared with other age ranges.

Further, race and ethnicity contribute to risk, with white women having the highest chances of being diagnosed with breast cancer, followed by Black women.

While the survival rate rapidly declines the more advanced the breast cancer becomes, it is worth noting that 62% of individuals are diagnosed at stage I or the early localized stage, offering a positive survival rate.

Learn more about breast cancer statistics and survival rates.

  1. Survival Rates for Breast Cancer | American Cancer Society

Doctors & specialists

If you are concerned that you have breast cancer symptoms, it is important to seek medical advice from your doctor. 

If you are diagnosed with breast cancer, you may see one or more of the following specialists at varying stages of your treatment, depending on your needs:

  • A surgical oncologist or breast surgeon – surgery

  • A radiation oncologist – radiation therapy

  • Medical oncologist – chemotherapy

  • Endocrinologist – hormone therapy

  • Immuno-oncologist – immunotherapy

  • Plastic surgeon – reconstructive surgery for breast reconstruction following treatment

Learn more about the treatment options doctors and specialists may recommend.


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