October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which is an annual campaign to increase awareness of the disease. While most people are aware of breast cancer, many forget to take the steps to have a plan to detect the disease in its early stages and encourage others to do the same. A lot of progress has been made but there is still a long way to go!
Understanding breast cancer
Cancer is a broad term for a class of diseases characterized by abnormal cells that grow and invade healthy cells in the body. Breast cancer starts in the cells of the breast as a group of cancer cells that can then invade surrounding tissues or spread (metastasize) to other areas of the body.
What is breast cancer?
Breast cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the breast. The damaged cells can invade surrounding tissue, but with early detection and treatment, most people continue a normal life.
What causes cancer to develop?
Cancer begins in the cells which are the basic building blocks that make up tissue. Tissue is found in the breast and other parts of the body. Sometimes, the process of cell growth goes wrong and new cells form when the body doesn’t need them and old or damaged cells do not die as they should. When this occurs, a build up of cells often forms a mass of tissue called a lump, growth, or tumor.
Breast cancer occurs when malignant tumors develop in the breast. These cells can spread by breaking away from the original tumor and entering blood vessels or lymph vessels, which branch into tissues throughout the body. When cancer cells travel to other parts of the body and begin damaging other tissues and organs, the process is called metastasis.
Facts about breast cancer in the United States
- One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime
- Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in women
- Breast cancer is the second leading cause of death among women
- Each year it is estimated that over 220,000 women in the United States will be diagnosed with breast cancer and more than 40,000 will die
- Although breast cancer in men is rare, an estimated 2,150 men will be diagnosed with breast cancer and approximately 410 will die each year
Causes of breast cancer: How did this happen?
When you’re told that you have breast cancer, it’s natural to wonder what may have caused the disease. But no one knows the exact causes of breast cancer. Doctors seldom know why one woman develops breast cancer and another doesn’t, and most women who have breast cancer will never be able to pinpoint an exact cause. What we do know is that breast cancer is always caused by damage to a cell’s DNA.
Known Risk Factors
Women with certain risk factors are more likely than others to develop breast cancer. A risk factor is something that may increase the chance of getting a disease. Some risk factors (such as drinking alcohol) can be avoided. But most risk factors (such as having a family history of breast cancer) can’t be avoided. Having a risk factor does not mean that a woman will get breast cancer. Many women who have risk factors never develop breast cancer.
What causes breast cancer growth?
There is much that we know and much that we have yet to understand. However, we do know that cancer spreads in three important ways:
- Damaged cells replicate, creating more damaged cells and tumor growth
- Our body’s hormones and chemicals can accelerate the growth of some tumors
- Lymph and blood vessels can carry the cancer to others areas of the body, and lymph node examination can help pinpoint the progression of the disease
Metastatic cancer is when cancer cells of a malignant tumor spread to other parts of the body, usually through the lymph system, and form a secondary tumor. There are two types of breast cancer tumors: those that are non-cancerous, or ‘benign’, and those that are cancerous, which are ‘malignant’.
What do scientists actually know about the cause of breast cancer?
Cancer grows when a cell’s DNA is damaged, but why or how that DNA becomes damaged is still unknown. It could be genetic or environmental, or in most cases, a combination of the two. But most patients will never know exactly what caused their cancer. However, there are certain established risk factors that are associated with breast cancer.
Environmental and Lifestyle Risk Factors
- Lack of Physical Activity: A sedentary lifestyle with little physical activity can increase your risk for breast cancer
- Poor Diet: A diet high in saturated fat and lacking fruits and vegetables can increase your risk for breast cancer
- Being Overweight or Obese: Being overweight or obese can increase your risk for breast cancer. Your risk is increased if you have already gone through menopause
- Drinking Alcohol: Frequent consumption of alcohol can increase your risk for breast cancer. The more alcohol you consume, the greater the risk
- Radiation to the Chest: Having radiation therapy to the chest before the age of 30 can increase your risk for breast cancer
- Combined Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT): Taking combined hormone replacement therapy, as prescribed for menopause, can increase your risk for breast cancer and increases the risk that the cancer will be detected at a more advanced stage
- Gender: Breast cancer occurs nearly 100 times more often in women than in men
- Age: Two out of three women with invasive cancer are diagnosed after age 55
- Race: Breast cancer is diagnosed more often in Caucasian women than women of other races
- Family History and Genetic Factors: If your mother, sister, father or child has been diagnosed with breast or ovarian cancer, you have a higher risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer in the future. Your risk increases if your relative was diagnosed before the age of 50
- Personal Health History: If you have been diagnosed with breast cancer in one breast, you have an increased risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer in the other breast in the future. Also, your risk increases if abnormal breast cells have been detected before
- Menstrual and Reproductive History: Early menstruation (before age 12), late menopause (after 55), having your first child at an older age, or never having given birth can also increase your risk for breast cancer
- Certain Genome Changes: Mutations in certain genes, such as BRCA1 and BRCA2, can increase your risk for breast cancer. This is determined through a genetic test, which you may consider taking if you have a family history of breast cancer. Individuals with these gene mutations can pass the gene mutation onto their children
- Dense Breast Tissue: Having dense breast tissue can increase your risk for breast cancer and make lumps harder to detect. Several states have passed laws requiring physicians to disclose to women if their mammogram indicates that they have dense breasts so that they are aware of this risk. Be sure to ask your physician if you have dense breasts and what the implications of having dense breasts are
Know your body so that you can:
- Make informed decisions
- Have a better dialogue with your doctor
- Be aware of anything unusual
Here are some resources to help you learn more: