What Is Breast Cancer?

Breast cancer is the name given to the type of cancer that originates in breast tissue.

The cells in your body regularly reproduce to replace dying cells. Cancer occurs when those cells keep reproducing at a rate faster than they’re supposed to, causing tumors. Cancer cells are uniquely able to ignore the signals that will usually tell the cells to stop dividing and the ones that begin a process known as programmed cell death, or apoptosis, which the body uses to get rid of unneeded cells. If these cells do not die but continue to reproduce, it’s cancer.

Cancer cells can sometimes break away from the primary cancer site and travel through the blood or other body systems to other parts of the body and begin dividing and replicating there. This is called secondary cancer and the process is known as metastasis. There are two most common types of breast cancer. The most frequent type of breast cancer is called ductal carcinoma, and this starts in the lining of the milk ducts. The second most common type of breast cancer is lobular carcinoma, which begins in the lobules (milk glands) of the breast.

Symptoms Of Breast Cancer

Symptoms of breast cancer can be easily mistaken for other illnesses. Please visit a doctor if you have any of the below:

  • Breast lump
  • Breast pain
  • Changes in size, feel or shape of a breast.
  • Skin changes
  • Change in the position of your nipple
  • Fluid leaking from your nipple

Breast lump

While 8 out of 10 breast lumps are benign, and therefore not cancer, one of the first signs of breast cancer can be a lump in the breast tissue. It’s important to perform regular checks and make sure that you go to your doctor with any concerns about new lumps in the breast.

Breast pain

Breast pain is rarely the first sign of breast cancer as there are many other causes of breast pain. Usually, it’ll go away by itself after some time, and tests can often find no cause. However, please see a doctor if there is breast pain in combination with any other symptoms or if it doesn’t alleviate with time.

Changes in size, feel or shape of a breast

You know your own breasts (men included) better than anyone else and so you’re in a unique position to be able to identify any changes or unusualness in your breast tissue.

Many healthy women find that their breasts feel lumpy and tender before their period. Therefore, changes in size, shape or feel of a breast aren’t always indicative of some underlying issue. You know your body and you know what is normal for you throughout the month. Regular breast checks can help you get to know the normal size, shape, and feel of your breasts and should be performed often. If you have unusual changes in your breasts such as them being a different shape or feeling lumpy, please make sure you see a doctor.

Skin changes

One of the more common changes to the skin, indicating something is wrong, is ‘orange peel skin’. This is where the skin begins to look a little like orange peel and feel a different texture; dimpled, puckered. Other skin changes include redness or a rash. It’s best to get these changes looked at by a doctor to rule out anything serious.

Nipple position changes

Some people naturally have nipples that are inverse rather than pointing outwards. Most people do not. If yours change from one to the other, it could be a sign that something is wrong. Change in direction of where the nipple is pointing can also be a concern.

Fluid leaking from the nipple

In a woman who is pregnant or breastfeeding, fluid from the nipple is perfectly normal and nothing to be concerned about. However, if this occurs in someone neither pregnant nor breastfeeding it can be a symptom of many things, including breast cancer. Always visit a doctor if you have unexplained fluid leaking from the nipple.

Who Can Get Breast Cancer?

It’s a myth that only women can get breast cancer. In fact, this is a dangerous misconception as it means that men who find a lump in their breast tend to delay going to their doctor until much later when there are other more severe symptoms such as bleeding from the nipple. They may ignore these symptoms, by which time cancer could have spread throughout the body.

Who is at risk of developing breast cancer?

The risks of developing breast cancer come in two categories: the ones that can be mitigated, and the ones that you can’t do anything about. The ones you can’t do anything about include age and genetics, whereas you can alter lifestyle and habits.

Most breast cancers occur in women over 50 and it is rare in women under 40. Most breast cancers happen to men between ages 60 and 70 and it ’s rare in men under 35.

Having a mother, sister or daughter diagnosed with breast cancer approximately doubles the risk of breast cancer. This risk is higher when more close relatives have breast cancer, or if a relative developed breast cancer under the age of 50.

The main risks factors for developing breast cancer are:

  • Older age
  • A personal history of breast cancer or benign (non-cancer) breast disease
  • Inherited risk of breast cancer through genetics and family history
  • Dense breasts
  • Exposure of breast tissue to estrogen made in the body
  • Taking hormone therapy for symptoms of menopause
  • Radiation therapy to the breast or chest
  • Obesity
  • Drinking alcohol
  • Smoking

As you can see, not all of the above factors are in your control.

How To Decrease Risk of Developing Breast Cancer

Anything that increases the risk of getting a disease is called a risk factor. This section will look at the risk factors that you have control over and which you can change to lower the risk as much as possible. Avoiding risk factors and increasing protective factors, unfortunately, does not guarantee you will not get cancer, but it does lower the risk of you getting cancer.

There are currently studies looking into the different ways to help prevent cancer, looking at the following:

  • Changing lifestyle or eating habits.
  • Avoiding things known to cause cancer.
  • Risk-reducing surgery.

Changing lifestyle or eating habits

Anything that can lower the risk of developing breast cancer is called a protective factor. There are many lifestyle choices a person can make to minimize the risk of developing breast cancer. Unlike the above factors that cannot be changed, lifestyle and habits can be altered to lower the risk.

Lose weight or maintain a healthy weight

Studies have found links between breast cancer and obesity. Therefore, if you are obese you do have more risk of developing breast cancer. Studies have shown that obesity substantially raises the risk of morbidity from many conditions, illnesses, and diseases, including breast cancer. Losing weight and maintaining a healthy weight can help to minimize the risk. Having a healthy diet can also be a protective factor against cancer.

Quit smoking

Smoking tobacco might increase your risk of getting breast cancer. It increases your risk of getting cancer overall, but it’s difficult to say which if there is a link between it and breast cancer in particular.

Poisons used in the manufacture of cigarettes are released when smoked. These poisons can make it harder to kill cancer cells, meaning they can keep growing and replicating without being stopped. The poisons can also cause tumors to be created, by damaging the parts of the cells DNA that regulate growth.

Regardless, if you smoke, it is never too late to stop smoking but the sooner you stop the better and the more chance your body will have to recover.

Exercise Regularly

Not only can regular exercise help with weight loss, but it can also be a protective factor in itself. Studies show that those participating in higher levels of physical activity have a reduced likelihood of developing a variety of cancers compared to those people who engage in lower levels of physical activity.

Lower your alcohol consumption

Over 100 studies have demonstrated an increased risk of breast cancer with increasing alcohol consumption. The less alcohol you drink, the lower your risk of cancer or any type, including breast cancer.

Avoiding carcinogenic products

Staying away from substances and situations that have known cancer risks is a great way to lower the risk of developing breast cancer. The EPA has an extensive list of products that are carcinogenic, or capable of causing cancer, to humans, and another of those that are known to be human carcinogens.

Risk-reducing surgery

Often, if there is a family history of breast cancer, women can elect to have surgery to remove their breasts; a mastectomy. This can happen even if the woman is displaying no signs of having breast cancer herself, as a preventative measure if the risk is high.

Stages of breast cancer

Breast cancer, like all cancers, can come in different stages, types, and grades. These vary in severity from Stage 1 which is often precancerous cells, through to stage 4 which is where the breast cancer has metastasized to completely different parts of the body.

Methods for Treating Breast Cancer

Depending on what stage the breast cancer is, the treatment will vary.

  • As well as being a preventative measure to avoid breast cancer in the first place, mastectomies can also be used to treat cancer.
  • If the cancer is contained in one tumor, for example, doctors can utilize a lumpectomy. This is where they just remove the tumor itself and leave the other breast tissue in place.
  • Chemotherapy is the most commonly used treatment for all types of cancer and utilizes drugs that interfere with a cell’s ability to reproduce. This comes with many side effects and can often make the patient feel ill while treating cancer.
  • Radiation is also used as a treatment for certain cancers such as breast cancer.

Frequently Asked Questions About Breast Cancer

Q. Can only women get breast cancer?

No. Men are also at risk of developing breast cancer, it’s just that the risks aren’t as high as for women.

Q. How often should I do a breast exam?

As frequently as possible. There is no such thing as too many at home self-exams. Not only will it alert you to any unusual changes in your breasts, but it’s also a great way to get to know your own body better. The recommended minimum is once per month.