October is breast cancer awareness month and with good reason. In the UK 1 in 8 women will develop breast cancer in their lifetime. This means that around 55,200 people are diagnosed with breast cancer in the UK each year: roughly 150 people a day.
Those are some scary statistics and it’s natural to be alarmed by them, but what is breast cancer? What are the symptoms? Are there any big risk factors? How does breast cancer get detected and treated?
These are important questions and, in the spirit of raising awareness for all, we’re going to look at breast cancer today and get the info needed to detect and understand this specific form of cancer.
What Is Breast Cancer?
Breast cancer is the most common cancer in the UK and, like all cancers in essence, is caused when the cells in your breast begin to grow in an abnormal or uncontrolled way.
Our bodies are made up of cells and, usually, these cells are pretty smart: They divide to make new cells in a controlled and totally natural and normal manner. But sometimes a new cell forms that is abnormal. Abnormal cells still go about their business of multiplying but abnormal cells can only make more abnormal cells and the cluster that these cells form make up tumors which can sometimes be a sever risk and are thus defined as cancerous.
The Main Areas of Impact
When it comes to the anatomy of the breast, this body part is formed of fat, supportive tissue, and glandular tissue. These glandular tissues are divided in to lobes and the lobes spread throughout the breasts (and kind of look like wheat or lavender if you ask me, which is sweet).
In women these milk glands are where milk will be produced and connect to milk ducts. These ducts (which line the breast) are the most common place where cell mutation will occur. It accounts for 9 in 10 cases and is defined as invasive breast cancer (NST: No Special Type).
Only 1 in 10 cancers start in the lobules instead (the wheaty or flowery top of the ‘stems’ that form the ducts). This is called invasive lobular carcinoma.
Other types of breast cancer do exist but they are extremely rare. More information can be found about them here.
The vast majority of breast cancer cases occur in women (or, to be more precise, occur with the female anatomy) but sometimes cancer can impact the male anatomy too. This is because men do have a small amount of breast tissue behind the nipple.
However, it is important to stress that male breast cancer risk is very low. To put it in to perspective 390 men are diagnosed yearly in the UK, as opposed to to 54,800 women. Regardless, it’s still important for those with male bodies to stay vigilant regarding breast cancer. Breast cancer is also somewhat different in men and knowing these differences is important.
Many symptoms of breast cancer may seem innocuous and can also be easily indicative of other medical conditions (or simply just the natural cyclical changes of the body) but here are a few of the tell-tale symptoms to look out for:
A lump in the breast.
A change in the size, shape, or feel of the breasts.
Dimpling in the skin, or a noticeable thickening of the tissue.
A rash, redness of the skin, or ‘orange peel’ texture.
A change in the position of your nipple (such as sinking in to the breast or fully inverting).
Discharge or other fluids leaking from your nipple.
Swelling or a lump in your armpit (connected to the breast tissues via a network of lymph glands known as lymph nodes).
Oozing fluid from the nipple.
Swelling of the area around the nipple.
A sore ulcer in the breast/nipple area.
An inverted nipple.
Lumps under the arm.
Rashes on or around the nipple.
It’s perfectly reasonable to go and see a doctor if you have any of these symptoms but there’s no reason to worry immediately. 9 out of 10 breast lumps are completely benign, posing no risk.
The first thing a doctor is likely to do if you have breast cancer concerns is to do their own physical examination of your breasts and the surrounding areas.
If necessary a referral may be made to a breast specialist who may ask questions about your personal and family history. Some of the things asked may seem random but that’s because a lot of things can impact the mutation of cells, so each question will have a purpose.
If your breast exams cause any concern then the specialist will most likely recommend a mammogram (an x-ray of the breast at low dose), a breast ultrasound (the use of sound waves to make up a picture of the breast), an ultrasound of the lymph nodes in the armpit, or a biopsy (the removal of a small piece of breast tissue for examination. usually done by needle).
Men can expect similar testing methods.
If breast cancer is detected then the first step most professionals will do (outside of offering the necessary information and emotional support foundation) is conducting further tests to determine the best way forward with treatment.
These can include blood tests, a chest x-ray, an MRI scan (magnetic resource imaging), or a CT scan (computerized tomography, an x-ray that makes up a more complex image). Additional tests, such as bone scans, may also be done to see if the cancer has spread, but these are case-by-case.
When it comes to treatment you will have a say in what approach to take when trying to get rid of the cancer, though certain methods will likely be advised as more effective than others. The treatment available will depend on the type, stage, and grade of the cancer, all of which can vary.
The main options for treatment are as follows:
Lumpectomy/Mastectomy: For most people this is the go-to option and is, in essence, surgery to remove the affected tissue. Surgeons will try to keep as much of the breast intact as is possible. This is known as a lumpectomy and aims for overall breast preservation while still treating the cancer. Sometimes, however, this isn’t possible or it is advisable to remove the entire breast instead. This is known as a mastectomy.
Some or all of the lymph nodes in your armpit may also be removed and checked for cancer too. This is a good precautionary method.
Radiotherapy: Radiotherapy is essentially the use of high-energy x-rays to destroy cancer cells. In terms of results, it’s the most effective type of treatment behind surgery, but it can also destroy healthy cells, which will have some side effects. This therapy is often recommended for use after breast surgery, typically 4 weeks afterwards.
Chemotherapy: A form of treatment where varying medication is used to kill cancer cells and present them from regrowing. Due to the rather aggressive nature of chemotherapy it’s usually recommended only in larger or later stages of breast cancer. In all cases, though, it will be carefully managed, so you can rest assured that you are in good hands.
Other treatments can be used (such as hormonal or biological therapy) but most treatment will either be one or a mixture of the above.
After treatment you can expect to have regular check-ups, where the breast area will be examined and the impact of therapy on your body and mental health may be discussed. You can expect regular support and feedback during every step of treatment, and there are many charities out there to assist in living through treatment.
Survival rates for breast cancer are optimistically good and are improving every day.
It’s important to tackle cancer on a case-by-case and personal basis (your cancer is your own personal demon, which you will totally wreck on your route to recovery) but here are the general, objective statistics:
Stage 1: 99% of people will survive for 5 years or more after diagnosis.
Stage 2: 90% will survive 5 years or more after diagnosis.
Stage 3: 60% will survive for 5 years or more after diagnosis.
Stage 4: 15% for 5 years or more after diagnosis. BUT Stage 4 breast cancer is not common, due to early detection methods and personal accountability. Or, to put it another way, go to a doctor when you have breast concerns and you’ll most likely never have to face this specific statistic.
Risk Factors & Prevention
Nobody knows 100% what will cause cancer but there are some common trends that have been detected and are noted as risk factors.
Age: Sad but true, simply by aging our risk of breast cancer increases. 8 out of 10 cases of breast cancer occur in women over 50.
Previous Cancers: If you’ve had a form of cancer before then your risk also goes up.
Family History: If someone in your family has suffered from breast cancer then it will pay for you to be vigilant.
Hormonal Factors: An increased exposure to oestrogen and/or progesterone can increase your risk. No, this doesn’t mean eating soy is bad for you (a common myth), but if you started your period at a young age or take medication that increases oestrogen (think the pill or HRT) then you’ll want to regularly check your breasts.
Lifestyle Factors: This is the one that we don’t really like to hear, but multiple lifestyle factors can increase the risk of breast cancer (and all types, really). This includes being overweight or obese, eating a poor diet, smoking, and drinking alcohol (especially post-menopause).
Some of these causes are out of our control, but there are many things we can do lifestyle-wise to mitigate the risk of breast cancer. These include:
Reducing or eliminating alcohol consumption.
Following a healthy diet.
Transitioning to a more plant-based diet (even if it’s flexitarian, No Meat Mondays, or simply an elimination or reduction of processed and red meats).
Doing some of these things may seem like a drag but they come with multiple positives which are often felt long term. And, if you need some extra motivation to start, why not quit for a set amount of days for a cancer charity and see how you feel come the end. Set up a GoFundMe for a month and hold yourself accountable through fundraising. That success might just help fuel a life-long method of personal cancer prevention.
Cancer is never easy, but breast cancer is at least detectable, highly treatable, and comes with multiple risk prevention methods. If you’re worried about cancer please do go to your doctor and get tested. It is always better to check than to leave these things.