This October marks the 25th annual celebration of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, during which organizations in the U.S. and worldwide will hold events aimed at raising awareness and providing education about breast cancer. In spite of ongoing efforts to inform the public about breast cancer, it continues to be a major health concern worldwide. According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), in 2010, there will be 209,060 new cases of breast cancer in the United States. Reports from the World Health Organization (WHO) indicate that incidence rates vary worldwide, however as the adoption of “western lifestyles” increase in the developing world, breast cancer has become more common. Due to the lack of adequate diagnosis and treatment facilities in these regions, survival rates are often also significantly lower. In 2004 an estimated 519,000 women died worldwide due to breast cancer, with 69 percent of these deaths occurring in developing nations. By ensuring that information about breast cancer and early detection programs are available, treatment outcomes worldwide can be greatly improved.
Like other types of cancer, breast cancer develops when abnormal cells divide in an uncontrolled fashion and spread to surrounding tissue (metastasize). Breast cancer is a malignant form of tumor growth which can develop in both men and women, but is approximately 100 times less common in men. An estimated one in every eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer during their lifetime, making it the second most commonly diagnosed cancer after skin cancer in women in the United States. There are many types of breast cancer, but two of the most common are ductal carcinoma, which begins in the cells that line the milk ducts of the breast; and lobular carcinoma, which begins in the lobes or lobules of the breast. Unlike less common forms of breast cancer, including inflammatory breast cancer which is marked by heat, redness, and swelling of the breast, these common types of breast cancer tend to manifest similarly.
The first signs of breast cancer may include a lump in the breast or thickening of breast tissue, change in shape of the breast, changes in the breast or nipple skin, or bloody discharge from the nipple. Tumors in the breasts may be detected during clinical breast exams, mammograms and other imaging tests, or self breast exams. A mammogram is a black-and-white image of the breast similar to an X-ray. Though some recommendations differ, the American Cancer Society suggests that women undergo yearly mammograms beginning at age 40. Though mammography has proven to be an effective screening method and can help ensure early diagnosis of breast cancer, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicates that more than 7 million women in the United States have not had a recent mammogram.
Following the identification of a tumor within the breast, a determination must be made regarding how advanced the spread of the cancer is so that it can be effectively treated. The “Stages” into which breast cancer are categorized – from Stage 0, defined by abnormal cells that are not invasive cancer, to Stage IV, defined by cancer which has spread throughout the tissues of the body. The Stages indicate how aggressively the cancer is spreading within the breast, to the surrounding tissue and lymph nodes, and throughout the rest of the body. Depending on the progression of the cancer, treatment options may include chemotherapy and surgery. Chemotherapy is a drug treatment that uses powerful chemicals to slow the growth of cancer in the body or kill off the cancer cells. Though it is effective, chemotherapy, which can produce a number of side effects, including nausea, vomiting, hair loss, and fatigue, is often used in combination with surgical interventions. Breast-sparing surgeries, which aim to remove cancer from the breast while preserving the surrounding tissue; and mastectomies, in which the entire breast is removed, are often employed.
Though breast cancer treatment can be physically and emotionally painful, there are currently over 2.5 million breast cancer survivors in the U.S. and many more around the world. Breast cancer can occur at any age, but the risk of its development increases as an individual gets older. While the cause is still unknown, there are a number of factors linked to an increased risk of developing breast cancer including the presence of certain “breast cancer genes,” a woman’s age, family history, and age at the onset of menstruation and menopause can increase their risk of developing breast cancer. While little can be done about some of these factors, some women with a genetic predisposition to developing cancer have opted to undergo preventative mastectomies to reduce their risk. Individuals can also help to reduce their risk by maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
By ensuring that individuals are made aware of the importance of regular clinical and self breast evaluations and that early detection and diagnosis programs are made available, treatment outcomes can be greatly improved.
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