1. What is Breast Cancer?
Breast cancer occurs when cells in the breast begin to grow out of control. They can then invade nearby tissues or spread throughout the body. Larger masses are called tumors. Benign tumors cannot spread and are not life threatening. Malignant tumors, however, can spread throughout the body or invade nearby tissue. Cancer occurs most commonly in tissue from the ducts or glands in the breast. It may take months or even years for a tumor to get large enough to feel in the breast, so screening is usually done with mammograms, which can sometimes see the diesase before we can feel it or see the symptoms.
2. What are the Risk Factors?
All women are at risk for breast cancer. Increased risk factors include a family history of cancer, atypical hyperplasia, delaying pregnancy until after age 30, no children or no breast-feeding, early menstruation (before age 12) late menopause (after age 55), current use (in the last 10 years) of oral contraceptives, more than 4 years of hormone replacement use, postmenopausal obesity, alcohol consumption, exposure to second-hand cigarette smoke, low physical activity and exposure to radiation.
These and other risk factors can have varying effects on the likelihood of developing breast cancer. It is important to remember that all risk factors are based on probabilities, and even someone without any risk factors can still get breast cancer. Proper screening and early detection remain the best weapons against mortality associated with this disease.
3. What are Warning Signs of Breast Cancer?
In its early stages, breast cancer may not have any symptoms. But as a tumor increases in size, it may produce a variety of symptoms that include:
A lump or thickening in the breast or under arm
A change in the size or shape of the breast
A discharge from the nipple or the nipple turning inward
A change in the color of feel of the skin of the breast or nipple area, such as redness or scaling of the skin, ridges, dimpling or pitting of the breast skin
Veins of the skin surface become more prominent on one breast
A depression is found in the area of the breast surface
Remember, if you have these symptoms it doesn't necessarily mean that you have breast cancer, but you need to be examined by a doctor as soon as possible.
4. What is an Early Detection Plan?
An early breast cancer detection plan should include the following:
Clinical breast examination every three years from ages 20-39, then every year thereafter
Monthly breast self-examinations beginning at age 20. Look for changes in your breasts.
Baseline mammogram by the age of 40
Mammogram screening every one to two years for women 40-49, depending on previous findings
Mammogram every year for women 50 and older
A personal calendar to record your self-examinations, mammograms, and doctor appointments
A low-fat diet, regular exercise, and no smoking or drinking
5. Prevention of Breast Cancer
Consult your doctor if you detect breast lumps. In women under 40, breast lumps are usually benign. If you have a lump or change in your breast, your doctor may tell you that a biopsy must be done. A biopsy is a minor surgical procedure to take out all or part of a breast lump. It is the only way to know for sure if a breast change is benign (not cancer) or malignant (cancer).
If a breast lump is detected during physical examination, a small needle may be inserted into the lump to determine if it is solid or cystic. If it is solid, usually removal under local anesthesia on an out-patient basis is all that is necessary. Removal is recommended because the mass will not disappear but will grow slowly. Removing the lump confirms that it is benign and provides the patient with peace of mind.
If a greenish-bluish fluid is revealed through aspiration with a needle, the cyst is most likely benign. If it turns out to be cystic and completely disappears, careful follow-up, often including a mammogram especially if the patient is over 40, is all that is indicated.
Breast lumps in women over 50 are always considered potentially malignant until proven otherwise. Remember, 8 out of 10 breast lumps are not cancer.
For most women, some risk factors can be controlled or modified to potentially influence the development of breast cancer. Many medical professionals recommend that when possible, a woman should avoid long-term hormone replacement therapy, have children before age 30, breastfeed, avoid weight gain through exercise and proper diet, decrease your daily fat intake, add more fiber to your diet, stay active, don't smoke, and limit alcohol consumption to one drink a day or less.
The most important thing any woman can do to reduce their risk of dying from breast cancer is to have regular mammogram screenings, learn how to perform breast self-exams, and have a regular physical examination by their physician.
6. Screening Tests
The earlier that breast cancer is detected, the more likely it is that treatment can be curable. Mammograms can detect cancer up to two years before a lump can be felt. Screening mammograms are simply x-rays of each breast from the top and the side. The amount of radiation from a mmamogram is very small. Regular mammograms can decrease the mortality of breast cancer by 30%. The majority of breast cancers are associated with abnormal mammographic findings. Regrettably, about two-thirds of women do not follow recommended guidelines for mammography.
Between the ages of 20-39, every woman should have a clinical breast exam ebry three years. After age 40 every woman should have a clinical breast exam done each year. A clinical breast exam is an exam done by a health professional to feel for lumps and look for changes in the size or shape of your breasts. During the clinical breast exam, you can learn how to do a breast self-exam. It is recommended that every woman should do a self-exam once a month, preferably about a week after her period ends. If you detect any changes in your breasts, you need to contact your doctor. About 15% of tumors are felt but cannot be seen by regular mammographic screening.
Some experimental screening tests are being studied including MRI, ductal lavage, ultrasound, optical tomography, PET scan, and digital mammograms.
When breast cancer is detected at an early stage of development, a number of effective treatment options are available. The basic treatment choices for breast cancer are surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, and hormonal therapy. Local treatments such as breast surgery and radiation therapy focus on the breast itself to remove or destroy the cancer cells confined to the breast. Systemic treatments, such as chemotherapy and hormonal therapy, aim to destroy the cancer cells that may have spread throughout the body.
Many women with breast cancer sometimes choose to explore complementary therapies and alternative medicines in addition to their medical treatment. These therapies are associated with a "holistic approach" to treatment, which means that it treats the person as a whole - body, mind and spirit - focusing on the specific site of the disease. These therapies are often not proven by scientific studies, but some women feel that they have benefited from involvement in there therapies.
Complementary therapies range from psychological counseling to spiritual healing and most frequently include acupuncture, herbs, biofeedback, visualization, meditation, yoga, nutritional supplements, and vitamins.
If you decide to try these therapies, discuss the side effects and data on their value with your doctors. Also be aware that these therapies may be expensive and most are not paid for by health insurance.
There are a few important points to remember about complementary and alternative therapies. There is no scientific proof that these therapies can cure cancer, but they may prolong or improve your quality of life. These treatments should be used as adjunctive therapies to conventional medical treatments, not instead of conventional treatment. Always keep your doctor informed of any alternative therapies you are using. And remember, just because they are "natural" treatments doesn't mean they are harmless. Many natural substances can be toxic and can have a negative effect on your health. Consult your doctor before taking any alternative treatments and find out everything you can about possible side effects.
8. Spiritual Healing
Scientific research is providing evidence that spirituality and religion can provide an oasis of comfort and courage to help women deal with breast cancer. Recent studies show that spirituality can take the form of going to church or embracing a formal religion. It can also simply mean believing in a power greater than oneself and engaging in private prayer. The benefits of spirituality as a factor in healing seem to include decreasing stress, increasing hope, and strengthening an individual's will to fight back against diseases. Many people believe that the spiritual aspect of healing is as important to healing and wellness as the physical and mental aspects.