Many health-related associations have chosen a month to spread awareness of their focus disease or condition, but perhaps none is so well-known as Breast Cancer Awareness month. This is because breast cancer has become one of the leading health problems in the world, affecting millions of women and a small number of men, too.
Breast cancer is the second most common cancer among all cancers, but it is the most common cancer among women worldwide. Each year, over 230,000 cases of invasive breast cancer in women are diagnosed in the U.S. (that’s 1 in 8 adult women) and 25,000 in Canada (1 in 10 adult women). Sadly, about 40,000 American women and 5000 Canadian women die from breast cancer per year.
Being aware of breast cancer signs and symptoms is absolutely vital, and they can be different from one person to another. They can include:
• Change in shape or size of the breast or of just the nipple
• Lump, hard knot or thickening inside the breast or underarm area
• Swelling, warmth redness or darkening of the breast
• Dimpling or puckering of the skin
• Nipple discharge or itchy scaly sore or rash on the nipple
• Pain in one spot on the breast that remains for weeks
Having one of these symptoms doesn’t mean with certainty that you have breast cancer, but it is crucial to be checked as soon as you detect a sign, as catching breast cancer at an early stage increases the chance of survival. Thanks to the regular use of mammography screening for women today, most breast cancers are discovered at an early stage, even before the symptoms appear. There are also ‘benign’ conditions that have some of the same symptoms but are not cancerous.
Breast cancer is most prevalent among women over age 50, but its rate varies among different races, with non-Hispanic white women and African Americans having the highest incidences and mortality rates. Those who are at the greatest risk of developing breast cancer are women who have had menopausal hormone therapy (postmenopausal hormone use). However, if your family has a history of breast cancer, it can occur at an earlier age. It does appear that drinking alcohol during adolescence may increase risk, as well as not exercising.
What occurs in breast cancer is that the body’s natural systems of cell growth and replacement begin to malfunction. Normally, cells split and grow to replace other cells that die. But when genes are broken, there is more cell growth than death. The result is that a tumor begins to form –a mass of cells that takes hold in breast tissue. Tumors are very small at first, making them hard to detect. Many women can grow a tumor for as much as ten years before it is detectable by touch. Some tumors expand quickly though and seem to appear overnight.
In invasive breast cancer, tumors spread throughout the breast tissue. The lymph nodes in the underarm area are often the first area that breast cancer will invade. Cancer cells can also travel to other parts of the body—like the liver, lungs, bones and brain—through the blood stream or the lymphatic system. This is called metastasis. Even when breast cancer is detected early, it can be hard to know if cancer cells have already spread elsewhere.
Research on breast cancer has come a long way in the past three decades—helping to save hundreds of thousands of lives. What is now known about breast cancer is that there can be many causes. One of these is an inherited mutation in two tumor prevention genes, BRCA 1 and BRCA 2. Normally these genes help protect against cancer by repairing damaged DNA that leads to uncontrolled cell growth. Women who inherit a mutation in these genes from their parents, however, lose this protection and are at greater risk for breast cancer. Women whose families have a history of breast cancer can be checked for this genetic defect.
Other causes of breast cancer are environmental factors that create gene mutations, such as smoking, being overweight or obese, exposure to radiation and cancer-causing chemicals, and even a lack of physical activity.
If breast cancer is detected, there are many treatment options, but this is a matter of personal choice and requires the medical advice of your doctor. If caught early, breast cancer treatments can include a combination of surgery on the breast to remove the tumorous tissue, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, hormone therapy or targeted therapy. The goal is to remove or destroy any cancer cells from remaining in the breast, risking their spread to other parts of the body.
Homewell Senior Care invites you to participate in Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October. Browse the resources listed here and spread the word among the women you know, both young and old. The world cannot afford to lose a single woman to breast cancer. Let’s join together and help find a cure for this serious health problem that affects so many millions of women.
These foundations are excellent for getting detailed information about breast cancer, its causes, symptoms, treatments, and support.