Breast cancer is one of the most common types of cancer in the world. There are more than 55,000 new cases in the UK each year, and the disease claims the lives of 11,500 women. In the United States, it strikes 266,000 each year and kills 40,000. But what are its causes and how can it be treated?
What is breast cancer?
Breast cancer develops from a cancer cell that develops in the lining of the duct, or lobula, of one breast.
When breast cancer spreads into the surrounding breast tissue, it is called “invasive” breast cancer. Some people are diagnosed with “carcinoma in situ,” in which no cancer cells grow outside the duct or lobule.
Most cases develop in women over the age of 50 but sometimes younger women are affected. Male breast cancer can develop although this is rare.
Staging means how big the cancer is and whether it has spread. Stage 1 is the first stage and stage 4 means that the cancer has spread to another part of the body.
Cancer cells are graded from Low, which means slow growing, to High, which means fast growing. High-grade cancers are more likely to come back after they are first treated.
What causes breast cancer?
A cancerous tumor starts from an abnormal cell. The exact reason why a cell turns cancerous is not clear. It is thought that something damages or alters certain genes in a cell. This makes the cell abnormal and multiply “out of control”.
Although breast cancer can develop for no apparent reason, there are some risk factors that can increase the chance of developing breast cancer, such as genetics.
What are the symptoms of breast cancer?
The usual first symptom is a painless lump in the breast, although most breast lumps are not cancerous and are fluid-filled sacs, which are benign.
The first place breast cancer usually spreads to is the lymph nodes in the armpit. If this happens you will develop a lump or lump in your armpit.
How is breast cancer diagnosed?
- Initial assessment: The doctor examines the breasts and armpits. They may perform tests such as mammograms, which are special x-rays of breast tissue that can indicate possible tumors.
- Biopsy: A biopsy is when a small sample of tissue is removed from a part of the body. The sample is then examined under a microscope to look for abnormal cells. The sample can confirm or rule out cancer.
If it is confirmed that you have breast cancer, more tests may be needed to assess whether it has spread. For example, blood tests, an ultrasound of the liver or a chest X-ray.
How is breast cancer treated?
Treatment options that may be considered include surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and hormonal therapy. Often a combination of two or more of these treatments is used.
- Surgery: breast-conserving surgery or mastectomy, depending on the size of the tumor.
- Radiotherapy: A treatment that uses high-energy beams of radiation that focus on the cancerous tissue. This kills cancer cells, or prevents cancer cells from multiplying. It is mainly used in addition to surgery.
- Chemotherapy: A treatment for cancer using anti-cancer drugs that kill cancer cells or stop them from multiplying
- Hormonal treatments: Some types of breast cancer are affected by the “female” hormone estrogen, which can stimulate cancer cells to divide and multiply. Treatments that reduce the level of these hormones or stop them from working are commonly used in people with breast cancer.
How successful is the treatment?
The outlook is best in those who are diagnosed when the cancer is still small and has not spread. Surgical removal of the tumor at an early stage may give a good chance of cure.
Routine mammography offered to women ages 50 to 70 means more breast cancers are diagnosed and treated at an earlier stage.
For more information visit breastcancercare.org.uk, breastcancernow.org or www.cancerhelp.org.uk