Breast cancer refers to an uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells in the milk-producing glands of the breast or in the ducts through which milk is delivered to the nipples. Breast tumours grow rather slowly. By the time it gets sizeable enough to be felt with the hand, it shall have grown for at least 10 years.
Research has shown that breast cancer is the second commonest cancer in women after skin cancer. The ailment is very widespread across all continents in the world.
Determining the type of breast cancer is an important factor in determining treatment approach. The easiest way to classify breast cancer is to classify it according to the status of three specific cell surface receptors: The oestrogen receptor (ER), the progesterone receptor (PR), and the Human Epidermal Growth Factor Receptor (HER)2/ neu receptor.
- Hormone Receptor – Positive breast cancer
This type of cancer grows as it responds to the hormones oestrogen and progesterone. It is likely to respond to therapies carried out to stifle the growth effects of the hormones.
- HER2-positive breast cancer
This type is typified by cells that make too much of a protein known as HER2/neu. Tumours that do not over-express HER2/neu are said to HER2-negative.
- Triple negative breast cancer (TNBC)
This type of breast cancer is not very common. It is a sub-type of HER2-negative tumour. Triple negative breast cancer refers to cancer cells which lack oestrogen and progesterone receptors and do not over-express the HER2 protein. TNBC is usually more aggressive and accounts to about 15% of all breast cancers. It is more difficult to treat as it does not easily respond to standard therapies.
Causes and risk factors of breast cancer
- Age: Most cases of breast cancer occur in women over 50 years old, those who start menopause after 55 years as well as in women who never gave birth or had their first baby when they are older.
- Hereditary factor: If a woman has a family history of breast cancer, she stands a higher risk of developing the tumour. Women who at any time have had clinical issues like benign tumour are at greater risks of developing breast cancer in future.
- Prolonged hormonal exposure: Having a rather long menstrual life or using hormone replacement therapy after menopause exposes women to a higher risk of developing breast cancer.
- Late first pregnancy: Women who have their first ever pregnancy after 35 are at higher risk of developing breast cancer.
- Reckless lifestyle: Leading an unhealthy lifestyle such as being overweight or obese especially after menopause is an invitation to breast cancer. Living an excessively sedentary life, consumption of excessive fatty food or alcohol also exposes women to breast cancer. Taking of oral contraceptives (birth-control pills) is also an invitation to breast cancer in future.
Symptoms of breast cancer
Some signs that suggest that one might be developing breast cancer include the following:
- Lump in the breast or armpit
- Swelling of part of the breast
- Dimple and bumpy and thick looking skin of the breast
- Irritation of the breast
- Flaky skin and redness of the nipple area of the breast
- Sucking in of and pain in the nipple area of the breast
- Discharge and blood other than milk from the nipple
- A change in the shape and size of the breast
- Pain in the breast
Treatment of breast cancer
The main treatment option for breast cancer that has not spread to other parts of the body is surgery. Surgery is also recommended for more advanced stages of the disease. Some of the commonest types of breast cancer surgery are
- Lumpectomy: It is the removal of the cancerous area of the breast along with the surrounding areas and sometimes the lymph node as well. In lumpectomy, effort is made to retain a normal breast appearance after surgery.
- Partial Mastectomy: Here a larger portion of tissue is removed compared to the case in lumpectomy.
- Total Mastectomy: This kind of surgery involves the removal of the entire breast without removing the lymph nodes.
Radiation therapy is often used after surgery along with chemotherapy to prevent a recurrence of cancer development.
Chemotherapy may be given before surgery. This is referred to neo-adjuvant treatment and meant to reduce or stunt the size of the tumour. When used in advanced stages of cancer development, chemotherapy is meant to reduce symptoms, improve quality of life and extend survival period.
When cancer has been diagnosed to be Hormone Receptor-Positive breast cancer, drugs that are potent in blocking the actions hormones oestrogen and progesterone are used for treatment.
This may include the use of monoclonal antibodies, vaccines and gene therapies. These are directly targeted against cancer-specific processes with an end to making them effective and less toxic to non-cancerous cells.
Breast cancer survivors who have had their breasts damaged have a choice to undergo breast reconstruction surgery to bring back the shape and size of their breasts the way they were before mastectomy. Surgeons can reconstruct the breast with implants that are filled with saline or silicone gel.
Prevention of breast cancer
- Find out whether you have dense breasts. When your breast has more tissues than fat (as is common among younger women), it becomes more difficult to detect cancer in the mammogram. Both tumours and tissues appear white while fat appears dark.
- Exercise helps prevent breast cancer especially because it burns down fat and enhances weight loss.
- Probe into your family health history. If either of your parents had cancer, look for professional help.
- Minimize your exposure to radiation from screening tests, ionizing radiation, and high-tech equipment as these have a way of causing DNA mutations in the cells.
- Limit hormone therapy as it increases a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer.
- Be active in breastfeeding: Women who actively breastfeed their babies during the first six months of delivery reduce the chances of developing breast cancer by 10%.
- Eat the right foods every day. Most vegetables and fruits such as cucumber, Graviola, onion, carrot, bitter cola, and a host of others are rich in anti-cancer properties.
- Like in any other kind of cancer, early detection is the watchword in cancer management and treatment.