Contributed by – Dr. Deepak Parashar
1 in every 28 women in India is likely to develop breast cancer and for every two women newly diagnosed with it, 1 succumbs to it. These numbers paint a very dismal picture of breast cancer in India. What is even worse is that, generally, breast cancer is a treatable condition if caught in time. But, here lies the biggest issue, in almost 50% of cases in India breast cancer patients first visit the doctor when they are in stage 3, and 15-20% of patients visit when they are in phase 4 when the chances of survival are very low. Lack of breast cancer awareness, societal norms and taboos are some of the reasons why survival rates in India are low. The only way to combat this is to talk about breast cancer and educate everyone. Today, we discuss breast cancer in depth to help you understand this disease better.
What is breast cancer?
Sometimes, the process of cell growth goes wrong and your body develops new cells even when it doesn’t need them or when older cells have not been destroyed. Due to this buildup of cells, a lump is formed, which, in most cases can be felt. Most of these lumps are benign. It means that they are non-cancerous and not a threat to your life. However, some of them do have the potential of becoming cancerous. That is why it is advisable to get every lump checked by a doctor.
In case the lump is cancerous, the cells spread through blood vessels and lymph nodes by breaking the original tumor and invading other body parts uncontrollably. This whole process wherein cancer cells travel to other body parts and start damaging them is called metastasis.
While breast cancer is common in women, men too are at risk. It is often believed that men cannot get breast cancer and so they tend to ignore the symptoms. Although the incidence rate in men is low, the mortality rate is high because of ignorance. Therefore, men too need to self examine regularly.
[Also read – Not every tumor is cancerous]
What are the types of breast cancer?
The type of breast cancer depends on the part of the breast that has been affected. The most common types are Ductal carcinoma (starts in the ducts that carry milk to the nipple) and Lobular carcinoma (starts in the glands that make breast milk). Other less common types of breast cancers are Paget disease of the nipples, Phyllodes tumor, and Angiosarcoma.
What are the signs and symptoms of breast cancer?
Breast cancer may not always show any sign in its early stage. But whenever it does, the following are the most commonly reported:
- A lump that feels different from the rest of the breast.
- Discharge from nipple other than breast milk
- Rash on or around the nipple
- Breast swelling
- Obvious asymmetry between the two breasts
- Red and hot skin
- Pain or tenderness
- Growth of the vein over the breast
- Pulling or puckering of the skin under the tumor
- Retraction of the skin on the breast
- Nipple retraction
- Destruction of the skin
Remember that these symptoms could also be a sign of some other health issue. So refrain from self-diagnosing and get yourself checked by a professional.
What are the risk factors of breast cancer?
Environmental factors, genetic factors, or a combination of both can determine your breast cancer risk.
Environmental factors are-
- Inactive lifestyle – Sedentary lifestyle increases the risk of breast cancer.
- Poor diet – Diet high in saturated fat and low in fruits and vegetables is a risk of breast cancer.
- Being obese – Beng overweight or obese is a risk of breast cancer.
- Drinking alcohol – Frequent alcohol consumption increases your risk of developing breast cancer.
- Radiation to the chest – Having radiation therapy to the chest before the age of 30 increases the risk of breast cancer.
Genetic factors are-
- Gender – Women are more at risk than men.
- Age – The risk of cancer increases as you age
- Family history – If there’s a history of breast or ovarian cancer in your family, then you are at a higher risk.
- Personal history – If you were diagnosed with cancer in one breast in the past, then you are at risk of developing cancer in the other breast as well.
- Menstrual and reproductive history – Early menstruation, late menopause and having late or no pregnancy at all increases the risk of breast cancer.
- Dense breast tissue – Having dense breast tissue is a risk of breast cancer and it makes detecting lumps harder.
[Also read – Watch out for these 8 cancer causing habits]
How is breast cancer diagnosed?
Since early breast cancer detection is the key to treating it and living a long and happy life, it is important that you proactively look for symptoms. The first step is to examine yourself regularly. You should self examine your breasts once every month.
Apart from that following methods are used by professionals to confirm cancer:
- Clinical breast examination to look for any changes in the breasts.
- Imaging tests like mammograms, ultrasound, and MRI to check for abnormalities.
- Biopsy wherein a sample of tissue is taken to confirm the presence of cancer cells.
[Also read – Everything about ovarian cancer that you must know]
How is breast cancer treated?
For breast cancer treatment, your doctor will first identify the stage cancer has reached. Factors that help determine the stage of breast cancer are – the size of the tumor, whether cancer is localized to the breast only, whether cancer has spread to the lymph nodes and whether cancer has spread to other body parts.
Once the stage is identified, treatment is planned considering the overall health of the patient. The following methods can be used:
- Surgeries to remove cancer cells.
- Radiotherapy to destroy the cancer cells.
- Chemotherapy to postpone the growth, shrink the tumor, or to kill the cancer cells.
- Hormone therapy, when tumors are sensitive to estrogen and progesterone.
Breast cancer is a major public health concern and a change in society’s attitudes and thinking is needed to protect women against it. Here, men can step in by engaging in conversations about women’s health thereby increasing breast cancer awareness. It is also essential that women themselves start focusing on their health and add regular breast cancer screenings to their regular health checkups.
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