As the international breast cancer month of October dawns upon us, every smart woman is cognizant of the fact that breast cancer can strike her or her friends any time. And the toll it takes on the cancer-stricken person and her family can be disastrous in every aspect of their lives. Hence, now is an opportune time to learn all about breast cancer, the risk factors and how it affects the body, in striving towards the goal of decreasing the probability of this dreaded disease entering women’s lives. Here is some worthwhile information that every woman should know about breast cancer.
What is Breast Cancer?
Before going into the definition of breast cancer, it helps to know some facts about the human body. The body is made up of normal cells that follow the characteristic development of growing and dying, to be replaced by new and healthy cells. In cancer, however, the cells mutate and become abnormal. They don’t die but just keep on growing out of control, usually forming a lump, and invading healthy tissues. The breasts, like the rest of the body parts, are made up of normal cells that form the lobules, ducts, fatty and connective tissues, and the blood and lymph vessels.
In breast cancer, some breast cells develop at an abnormal growth rate and multiply uncontrollably, forming a lump or tumor. These cells usually originate from the lobules, where the milk is produced, or the milk ducts, which are the passageways of the milk from the lobules to the nipples. A malignant lump, detected by a biopsy, is the basis for a diagnosis of breast cancer.
The good news is that studies done by the National Institutes of Health show that 70 to 80 percent of breast tumor biopsies are benign. However, this is not reason to be complacent. Regular monitoring through diagnostic procedures and check-ups with obstetrician-gynecologists is recommended.
Consider this: estimates on breast cancer statistics for 2011 from the American Cancer Society show an expected 230,480 new cases of invasive breast cancer and about 57,650 new cases of non-invasive cancer will be diagnosed in women this year. Deaths of women from breast cancer are estimated to be about 39,520 for 2011.
Next to skin cancer, breast cancer is the most prevalent kind of cancer in American women. It is second only to lung cancer as the leading cause of cancer death in women.
SEER figures show that one in eight - about 12 percent - average American women have a risk of developing breast cancer. The same source says that, based on the average American woman, the older ones are at greater risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer. Women from ages 30 to 39 have a 0.43 percent chance of getting this disease. The risk increases with age, with the highest risk group being ages 60 to 69, who have a 3.45 percent risk.
Mortality data in the US shows that, from 2003 to 2007, the lowest figure of death from breast cancer is 0.9 percent for women aged 20 to 34, and the highest is 22.6 percent for those aged 75 to 84. Coming in a close second in highest death data is 20.8 percent for women aged 55 to 64.
These average figures are given for the whole population. Several factors influence each woman’s risk for having breast cancer. Some factors have been established through scientific studies and surveys, while the role of others has not been fully explained.
Risk factors that are beyond the power of women to change are gender, age, genetics - including having a personal or family history of breast cancer - race, dense breast tissue and early menstrual periods or late menopause.
Women can control their risk for having breast cancer by changing to a healthy lifestyle. This includes avoiding a high fat diet and lessening red meat consumption, managing obesity, minimizing alcohol intake, stopping smoking and avoiding exposure to radiation.
How Breast Cancer Can Affect Your Life
The first sign of breast cancer is usually a lump or thickening of an area in the breast or near it. As the lump or tumor grows, there is a noticeable distortion in breast size or shape. There will be indentations near the tumor and the skin becomes red, looking pitted like an orange peel and is easily irritated. The contour changes from an outwardly convex shape to a turning inwards appearance with nipple inversion. There will be nipple discharges and tenderness on the breast area.
As the cancer spreads, it invades the healthy cells and finds its way to the lymph nodes and into the other parts of the body. When it has penetrated the lymph system, the lymph nodes located in or around the armpits become swollen, painful and easily felt. Sometimes, swollen lymph nodes are felt before the tumor in the breast. A compromised lymph system results in a poor immune system, exposing the body to infections and lessening its capability to fight back.
The biggest danger of breast cancer is metastasis, the spread of the cancer cells to the other parts and organs of the body. This stage of breast cancer is determined by how far it has spread from its original location. Metastasis causes dysfunction to the affected body parts or the organs. In the bones, it can increase the risks for fractures and other bone disorders. Metastasis to the liver causes jaundice and abdominal pain. Lung metastasis can bring about difficulty in breathing and a cough that never goes away. If the breast cancer has reached the brain, there will be distortion in vision, confusion, loss of balance and personality changes.
Other systemic effects of breast cancer, which is also true for almost all types of cancer, are extreme fatigue, nausea, loss of appetite and sudden weight loss. Psychological effects include depression and withdrawal from family, friends and social events.
Living Without the Specter of Breast Cancer
Breast cancer is an undeniable probability in a woman’s life. Learning about the disease, its risk factors, prevention and early detection is the best way to equip women with defensive strategies to combat this real-life enemy. And having a positive attitude towards acquiring knowledge is the first step in the battle.