October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. About 1 in 8 women, and 1 in 1,000 men, will develop breast cancer in their lifetime. For women, this means that you have a 12% chance of having the disease. With early screening, diagnosis, and treatment, your chances of survival are very high, up to 99% survival rate after five years when caught in the breast before it spreads. Many factors contribute to your risk of developing this disease, just being a woman greatly increases your risk. While about 85% of breast cancers occur in women with no family history of breast cancer, genetics is thought to cause 5-10% of breast cancers. If you have a mother, sister, or daughter with breast cancer, your risk of developing it nearly doubles. Age also contributes to a higher risk of having breast cancer. The older you are, the higher your risk of developing it becomes. Women who menstruated before 12 years of age or those who stopped after 55 years of age are also at a higher risk.
Knowing what to look for is important in early detection. Some symptoms for breast cancer include: swelling of all or part of the breast; skin irritation; breast pain; nipple pain; redness or thickening of the nipple or breast skin; nipple discharge that isn’t breast milk; lump in the underarm areas; or a dimple in the breast tissue. Early screening and detection is key for breast health. When you suspect you might have a problem, you can see your primary doctor for initial tests. Depending on your test results and diagnosis, you may see a specialist. Some of the specialists you may encounter further into your treatment may include a breast surgeon, a radiation oncologist, a medical oncologist, and a reconstructive surgeon, among others.
Screening tests can help to detect breast cancer before symptoms start. Typically, the earlier you diagnose breast cancer, then easier it is to treat. Some screening tests include things like yearly mammograms, clinical breast exams, and breast self-exams. Those with a high risk of breast cancer may have an option of a breast MRI; however, this is not recommended for those with lower risk. For those whose screening tests show they might have breast cancer, diagnostic tests are performed as a follow-up. These may include a fine needle aspiration biopsy, surgical biopsy, and lymph node biopsy to diagnose the type of breast cancer and develop a treatment plan. Monitoring tests, such as CBCs, bone scans, and ultrasounds, are used during and after treatment to check for signs of recurrence. There are many types of breast cancers that may occur. These are determined by the types of cells in the breast that are affected. Some general categories are non-invasive, invasive, recurrent, and metastatic breast cancers. In situ breast cancers, such as ductal carcinoma in situ, are non-invasive or pre-invasive cancers that have not spread to surrounding tissue. These are the easiest types to treat. Metastatic, or invasive, breast cancers such as invasive ductal carcinoma and invasive lobular carcinoma, are ones that have spread into the surrounding tissue. Metastatic cancers are classified with stages, 0-IV, and treatment depends upon the stage of the cancer.
While you can’t control your genes or age, there are things you can control to lower your risk of developing breast cancer. Some controllable lifestyle choices, such as smoking, excessive drinking (more than one drink per day), diets high in fat, and lack of exercise, all contribute to a higher risk of developing the disease. Regular exercise, eating a healthy diet, not smoking, and limiting drinking will help to reduce these risks. Avoiding exposure to certain chemicals also helps to reduce your risk of developing breast cancer. Those with a personal history of breast cancer also have higher risk of developing the disease again. There are screening tests, diagnostic tests, and monitoring tests you may take for the diagnosis of breast cancer.
Two methods of treatments to get rid of the cancer or get it under control are systemic treatments and local treatments. Systemic treatments, such as medicine given by mouth or through the bloodstream, can reach cancer cells anywhere in the body. Examples of these are chemotherapy, hormone therapy, and targeted therapy (such as Herceptin, Tykerb). Local treatments are treatments just on the tumor, without affecting other tissues or organs, such as surgery and radiation. Stage 0 breast cancer treatments may include mastectomy, lumpectomy with or without radiation, or hormone therapy. Stage I breast cancer treatments may involve the above treatments along with chemotherapy or targeted therapy. More advanced stages may require further lymph node removal and a more aggressive form of radiation, chemotherapy, or hormone therapy treatment. In addition to traditional treatments, there are clinical trials that you can chose to be involved in to try new treatments for breast cancer therapy, along with the new immunotherapy drugs. You may also choose to treat your cancer with complementary or alternative treatments, such as acupuncture, massage, special diet, vitamins, and herbs. Some of these treatments may have side effects. These side effects vary greatly depending on the treatment itself and the health of the individual. They include some of the following: physical illness, weakness and fatigue, depression, loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting, mouth sore, hair loss, weight gain, early menopause, a higher risk of infections, bleeding, and even possible death. If untreated, breast cancer is typically a fatal disease that doesn’t go away on its own. The timeline depends upon the severity of the cancer and the health of the individual; there aren’t any conclusive studies to show how long you will live with the disease if left untreated.
Early diagnosis and treatment will greatly increase your chances of remission and recovery. Many forms of breast cancer, when diagnosed early, may be treated with minimally invasive methods, enabling you to heal quicker and get back to your life. Nearly 13% of women will develop this disease. A chance at surviving depends heavily on early detection so empower yourself by knowing the symptoms, your family history, living a healthy life and having the recommended screenings.