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 has resulted in the death of 11,500 women. In the United States, it affects 266,000 every year and kills 40,000. But what causes it and how can it be treated?
What is breast cancer?
Breast cancer develops from a cancerous cell that develops in the lining of a duct or lobule in one of the sinuses.
When breast cancer has spread to the surrounding breast tissue, it is called “invasive” breast cancer. Some people are diagnosed with “carcinoma in situ”, where no cancer cell has grown beyond the duct or lobule.
Most cases develop in women over the age of 50, but sometimes younger women are affected. Breast cancer can develop in men although this is rare.
Staging indicates how large the cancer is and whether it has spread. Stage 1 is the first stage and stage 4 indicates that the cancer has spread to another part of the body.
Cancer cells are classified as low, which means slow, high growth that is growing rapidly. High-grade cancers are more likely to return after they have been treated for the first time.
What are the causes of breast cancer?
A cancerous tumor starts from an abnormal cell. The exact reason why a cell becomes cancerous is unclear. Something is thought to damage or modify 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 chances of developing breast cancer, such as genetics.
What are the symptoms of breast cancer?
The usual first symptom is a painless lump in the breast, although most breast lumps are not cancerous and are fluid-filled cysts, which are benign.
The first place where breast cancer usually spreads are lymph nodes in the armpit. In this case, you will develop a swelling or lump in the armpit.
How is breast cancer diagnosed?
- Initial assessment: a doctor examines the breast and armpits. They can do tests like a mammogram, a special x-ray of breast tissue that can indicate the possibility of tumors.
- Biopsy: A biopsy occurs when a small sample of tissue is removed from one part of the body. The sample is then examined under a microscope to look for abnormal cells. The sample can confirm or rule out cancer.
If you have confirmed that you have breast cancer, further tests may be needed to assess whether it has spread. For example, blood tests, an ultrasound scan of the liver or a chest x-ray.
How is breast cancer treated?
Therapeutic options that may be considered include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy and hormonal treatment. A combination of two or more of these treatments is often used.
- Surgery: surgery that preserves the breast or the removal of the affected breast depending on the size of the tumor.
- Radiotherapy: a treatment that uses high energy radiation beams focused on the cancerous tissue. This kills cancer cells or prevents cancer cells from multiplying. It is mainly used in addition to surgery.
- Chemotherapy: a cancer treatment using anti-cancer drugs that kill cancer cells or prevent them from multiplying
- Hormone treatments: some types of breast cancer are affected by “female” hormone estrogen, which can stimulate cancer cells to divide and multiply. Treatments that reduce the level of these hormones or prevent them from functioning are commonly used in people with breast cancer.
How successful is the treatment?
The outlook is better in those diagnosed when the cancer is still small and has not spread. Surgical removal of a tumor at an early stage can therefore give a good chance of recovery.
Routine mammography offered to women between the ages of 50 and 70 means that more breast cancers are diagnosed and treated at an early stage.
For more information, visit breastcancercare.org.uk or www.cancerhelp.org.uk