Breast Cancer – Symptoms and Causes
Breast cancer is cancer that forms in the cells of the breasts.
After skin cancer, breast cancer is the most common cancer diagnosed in women in the United States. Breast cancer can occur in both men and women, but it’s far more common in women.
Substantial support for breast cancer awareness and research funding has helped created advances in the diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer. Breast cancer survival rates have increased, and the number of deaths associated with this disease is steadily declining, largely due to factors such as earlier detection, a new personalized approach to treatment and a better understanding of the disease.
What is breast cancer?
Breast cancer is a malignant tumor (a collection of cancer cells) arising from the cells of the breast. Although breast cancer predominantly occurs in women, it can also affect men. This article deals with breast cancer in women. Breast cancer and its complications can affect nearly every part of the body.
The first symptoms of breast cancer are usually an area of thickened tissue in the breast, or a lump in the breast or in an armpit.
Other symptoms include:
- a pain in the armpits or breast that does not change with the monthly cycle
- pitting or redness of the skin of the breast, like the skin of an orange
- a rash around or on one of the nipples
- a discharge from a nipple, possibly containing blood
- a sunken or inverted nipple
- a change in the size or shape of the breast
- peeling, flaking, or scaling of the skin on the breast or nipple
Most lumps are not cancerous, but women should have them checked by a health care professional.
Cancer is staged according to the size of the tumor and whether it has spread to lymph nodes or other parts of the body.
There are different ways of staging breast cancer. One way is from stage 0 to 4, but these may be broken down into smaller stages.
0 Stage: Known as ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), the cells are limited to within a duct and have not invaded surrounding tissues.
1 Stage: At the beginning of this stage, the tumor is up to 2 centimeters (cm) across and it has not affected any lymph nodes.
2 Stage: The tumor is 2 cm across and it has started to spread to nearby nodes.
3 Stage: The tumor is up to 5 cm across and it may have spread to some lymph nodes.
4 Stage: The cancer has spread to distant organs, especially the bones, liver, brain, or lungs.
After puberty, a woman’s breast consists of fat, connective tissue, and thousands of lobules, tiny glands that produce milk for breast-feeding. Tiny tubes, or ducts, carry the milk toward the nipple.
In cancer, the body’s cells multiply uncontrollably. It is the excessive cell growth that causes cancer.
The exact cause remains unclear, but some risk factors make it more likely. Some of these are preventable.
The risk increases with age. At 20 years, the chance of developing breast cancer in the next decade is 0.6 percent. By the age of 70 years, this figure goes up to 3.84 percent.
If a close relative has or has had, breast cancer, the risk is higher.
Women who carry the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes have a higher risk of developing breast cancer, ovarian cancer or both. These genes can be inherited. TP53 is another gene that is linked to a greater breast cancer risk.
3. A history of breast cancer or breast lumps
Women who have had breast cancer before are more likely to have it again, compared with those who have no history of the disease.
Having some types of benign, or non-cancerous breast lumps increases the chance of developing cancer later on. Examples include atypical ductal hyperplasia or lobular carcinoma in situ.
4. Dense breast tissue
Breast cancer is more likely to develop in higher density breast tissue.
5. Estrogen exposure and breast-feeding
Being exposed to estrogen for a longer period appears to increase the risk of breast cancer.
This could be due to starting periods earlier or entering menopause later than average. Between these times, estrogen levels are higher.
Breast-feeding, especially for over 1 year, appears to reduce the chance of developing breast cancer, possibly because pregnancy followed by breastfeeding reduces exposure to estrogen.
6. Body weight
Women who are overweight or have obesity after menopause may have a higher risk of developing breast cancer, possibly due to higher levels of estrogen. High sugar intake may also be a factor.
7. Alcohol consumption
A higher rate of regular alcohol consumption appears to play a role. Studies have shown that women who consume more than 3 drinks a day have a 1.5 times higher risk.
8. Radiation exposure
Undergoing radiation treatment for a cancer that is not breast cancer increases the risk of breast cancer later in life.
9. Hormone treatments
The use of hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and oral birth control pills have been linked to breast cancer, due to increased levels of estrogen.
10. Occupational hazards
In 2012, researchers concluded that exposure to certain carcinogens and endocrine disruptors, for example in the workplace, could be linked to breast cancer.
In 2007, scientists suggested that working night shifts could increase the risk of breast cancer, but more recent research concludes this is unlikely.
Making changes in your daily life may help reduce your risk of breast cancer. Try to:
Ask your doctor about breast cancer screening.
Discuss with your doctor when to begin breast cancer screening exams and tests, such as clinical breast exams and mammograms.Talk to your doctor about the benefits and risks of screening. Together, you can decide what breast cancer screening strategies are right for you.
Become familiar with your breasts through breast self-exam for breast awareness.
Women may choose to become familiar with their breasts by occasionally inspecting their breasts during a breast self-exam for breast awareness. If there is a new change, lumps or other unusual signs in your breasts, talk to your doctor promptly.Breast awareness can’t prevent breast cancer, but it may help you to better understand the normal changes that your breasts undergo and identify any unusual signs and symptoms.
Drink alcohol in moderation, if at all.
Limit the amount of alcohol you drink to no more than one drink a day, if you choose to drink.
Exercise most days of the week.
Aim for at least 30 minutes of exercise on most days of the week. If you haven’t been active lately, ask your doctor whether it’s OK and start slowly.
Limit postmenopausal hormone therapy.
Combination hormone therapy may increase the risk of breast cancer. Talk with your doctor about the benefits and risks of hormone therapy.Some women experience bothersome signs and symptoms during menopause and, for these women, the increased risk of breast cancer may be acceptable in order to relieve menopause signs and symptoms. To reduce the risk of breast cancer, use the lowest dose of hormone therapy possible for the shortest amount of time.
Maintain a healthy weight.
If your weight is healthy, work to maintain that weight. If you need to lose weight, ask your doctor about healthy strategies to accomplish this. Reduce the number of calories you eat each day and slowly increase the amount of exercise.
Choose a healthy diet.
Women who eat a Mediterranean diet supplemented with extra-virgin olive oil and mixed nuts may have a reduced risk of breast cancer. The Mediterranean diet focuses mostly on plant-based foods, such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts. People who follow the Mediterranean diet choose healthy fats, such as olive oil, over butter and fish instead of red meat.
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