Breast cancer is the most common cancer that is diagnosed in women in the United States besides skin cancers. On average, American women have a one in eight chance of being diagnosed with the disease during their lifetime. According to the American Cancer Society, 266,120 new cases of breast cancer will be diagnosed in the U.S. in 2018, and approximately 40,920 people will lose their lives from the disease. However, a significant percentage of those deaths could be prevented with preventive care techniques like mammograms.
Read on to learn everything that you need to know about breast cancer.
What is Breast Cancer?
Like all types of cancer, breast cancer occurs when cells — in this case, cells in the breast — grow out of control. Typically, this out-of-control growth results in the development of a tumor. If the resulting tumor is malignant, it is capable of invading nearby tissues and of spreading, or metastasizing, to distant parts of the body. This happens when the cancerous cells get into the blood system or the lymphatic system, where they are spread to other organs and tissues.
Breast cancer is mostly diagnosed in women, but men can develop the disease too. Certain lifestyle factors can increase a person’s risk of developing breast cancer, and there are also many things that are beyond a person’s control that can put them at increased risk of developing this type of cancer.
Who’s at Risk?
Risk factors for breast cancer that are beyond a person’s control include:
- Gender: Breast cancer is 100 times more common in women than in men.
- Age: This disease tends to occur more often in people over the age of 55.
- Genetics: Approximately five to 10 percent of breast cancer cases are attributable to genetics. In particular, harmful mutations of the BRCA1 gene, which normally produces proteins that repair damaged DNA, drastically increase the risk. People with harmful mutations to this gene have a seven in 10 chance of developing breast cancer by age 80.
- Race or ethnicity: People of Ashkenazi Jewish descent are more susceptible to harmful mutations of the BRCA1 gene. White women are at higher risk than black women, but the disease happens more often below the age of 35 in that population.
- Family history: Although eight out of 10 people who are diagnosed with breast cancer have no family history, having a first-degree relative with the disease doubles the risk.
- Early menstruation: Studies suggest that starting menstruation early may increase the risk of breast cancer.
- Late menopause: Women who start menopause after age 55 may be at increased risk.
- Dense breast tissue: Women with dense breast tissue are 1.5 to two times as likely to develop breast cancer.
Many lifestyle factors may also increase your risk of developing breast cancer, including:
- Using hormonal birth control
- Leading a sedentary lifestyle
- Drinking alcohol; women who drink two to three alcoholic beverages per day are 20 percent more likely to develop breast cancer than non-drinkers
- Being overweight or obese
- Having no children or having children after age 30
- Not breastfeeding
- Undergoing hormone therapy
Causes and Symptoms
As evidenced by the risk factors outlined above, breast cancer may be triggered by several different factors. One fairly common cause involves the BRCA1 gene, which produces tumor oppressing proteins that work to repair damaged DNA. When harmful mutations occur to this gene, DNA damage may not be repaired properly, and the cells are more likely to experience additional genetic alterations.
The most common symptom of breast cancer is a new lump or mass in the breast. Most commonly, the lump is hard, painless, and has irregular edges. However, it can also be soft, painful, and tender.
Additional symptoms of breast cancer include:
- pain in the breast or nipples
- swelling across part or all of the breast
- retraction of the nipple
- skin irritation or dimpling
- discharge from the nipple
- thickening, scaliness, or redness of the nipple or breast skin
Examples of three especially common treatments for breast cancer include:
Various surgical procedures may be performed to treat breast cancer. A mastectomy involves the removal of the entire breast, but breast-conserving surgeries like lumpectomies may be performed instead. Either way, the goal is to remove as much of the cancer as possible. Surgeries like sentinel lymph node biopsies or axillary lymph node dissections may also be performed to see if cancer has spread to the lymph nodes. Surgery may also be performed in advanced cancers to slow the spread or to prevent or relieve symptoms.
2. Radiation Therapy
This treatment option is usually used in conjunction with surgery and other methods. Whether or not it is used depends on whether the cancer has spread to other areas, age, and other factors.
High-energy particles are directed at the body to kill cancerous cells. When directed from outside the body, it’s called external beam radiation; when directed internally, it’s called internal radiation, or brachytherapy. Radiation is commonly used after breast-conservation surgery or mastectomy, on tumors that are larger than two inches in diameter, and on cancer that has spread to the lymph nodes or elsewhere.
With this breast cancer treatment option, cancer-fighting drugs are delivered intravenously or orally over the course of several weeks. Adjuvant chemotherapy is performed following surgery to target remaining cells; neoadjuvant chemotherapy is performed before surgery to shrink tumors for easier removal. It is also performed for advanced cancers that have spread outside of the breasts and underarm area.
Many breast cancer patients choose to supplement their traditional treatments with complementary and alternative medicine, or CAM. Alternative remedies may not have scientifically proven benefits in many cases, but they provide a way for patients to engage in positive self-care and can be very empowering. Most of the time, alternative remedies are regarded as holistic treatments, which means that they target the body and mind as a whole. In addition to physical relief, then, these remedies may provide mental health benefits for breast cancer patients.
Examples of popular complementary and alternative treatments for breast cancer include:
- acupuncture and cupping
- meditation and mindfulness
- massage therapy
- chiropractic care
- tai chi
Although these treatments may not relieve the cancer itself, they may help to ease symptoms and side effects. For example, hot flashes that are caused by other treatments may be eased through techniques like yoga, massage, and acupuncture. Mindfulness-based stress reduction, or MBSR, which includes meditation, may also be a powerful way to relieve the mental stress that goes along with coping with and treating the disease.
The prognosis for breast cancer diagnoses continues to improve. In the past three decades, women’s risks of dying from breast cancer have dropped by more than 30 percent. The National Breast Cancer Foundation reports that there are currently 3.3 million survivors of breast cancer living in the U.S. today.
The decline in breast cancer deaths can be attributed to several factors. Fewer doctors are prescribing hormone therapy to women who are older than 50. Breast cancer screenings have improved, allowing for earlier detection and treatment of malignancies. Finally, breast cancer research continues to reveal improved treatments that have helped many more women to survive.
There are several breast cancer treatments that people might expect to see in the near future. Part of the advances is due to the recognition that there are many different types of breast cancer, necessitating different approaches. For example, women can undergo DNA sequencing to identify the basis for their particular types of breast cancer. Oncologists can then prescribe targeted medicines such as modified chemotherapy treatments that might different processes in the body that contribute to cancer’s spread.
One study that is being conducted at the University of Michigan has shown promise in treating metastasizing breast cancer. This research involves inserting a tiny scaffold-like device under the skin. The device traps metastasized cancer cells, so they cannot spread throughout the body. There are also a few clinical trials currently underway at the University of Michigan that are testing different targeted therapies for the treatment of a broad variety of breast cancer types.