Breast Cancer – The Most common Cancer among Females


This is the type of cancer that develops in a woman’s breasts. It is the second most common type of cancer among females, the first one being skin cancer. Although it can be found both in males and females, it is more common in females. Constant support for spreading awareness about breast cancer and its research has created a lot of advancements in its diagnosis and treatment. Because of these efforts, the survival rate of breast cancer patients has increased, and the number of deaths caused due to it is decreasing. This is mainly because of earlier detection, a new and better approach to treatment, and a better understanding of breast cancer.

What are the types of breast cancer?

  • Angiosarcoma
  • Ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS)
  • Inflammatory breast cancer
  • Invasive lobular carcinoma
  • Lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS)
  • Male breast cancer
  • Paget’s disease of the breast
  • Recurrent breast cancer

Warning signs and symptoms of breast cancer

Warning signs and symptoms of breast cancer

The following may be the symptoms and signs of breast cancer.

  • Lumps in breasts, or a thickened mass that feels different from the surrounding areas.
  • Changes in size, shape, and appearance of the breasts.
  • Changes in the skin of the breast, like the formation of dimplings
  • Inversion in nipples.
  • Scaling, peeling, or flaking of the pigmented skin around the nipples or areola or breast skin.
  • Pitting or redness of the skin of the breasts.

Causes of Breast Cancer 

Breast cancer develops when breast cells start growing abnormally. The cells of the breasts multiply at a rate which is a lot more than healthy cells, and they continue to accumulate. This leads to the formation of a lump, or a mass. Cells metastasis from your breasts towards your lymph nodes, or to the other organs and parts of your body.

Breast cancer most commonly starts with the cells in the milk-producing ducts, more specifically, invasive ductal carcinoma. It can also begin in the lobules, which are the glandular tissues, called invasive lobular carcinoma. It may occur in any other part of the breasts as well.

Lifestyle, environmental and hormonal factors are the most potent ones which may put you at a greater risk of breast cancer. Still, there are some people with no risk factors who develop cancer, and some with all the risk factors who don’t. And there is a clear explanation behind this. It can be said that breast cancer is caused by a complex reaction of your genetic composition and environment.

Can breast cancer be inherited? 

sore breasts in pregnancy

It is estimated that around ten percent of breast cancers are connected somehow to gene mutations, which are passed through generations in a family.

Multiple inherited gene mutations have been identified which can elevate the risk of breast cancer. Breast cancer gene 1 or the BRCA1 and breast cancer gene 2 or the BRCA2 are the most well-known ones among these, which significantly raise the risk of both breast cancer and ovarian cancer.

Your doctor may recommend a blood test to you to identify some specific genetic mutations in BRCA if you have a strong history of breast cancer or any other form of cancer in your body. You should also think about asking your doctor about a genetic counselor. A genetic counselor can review the health history of your family. He could also discuss the benefits, risks, and disadvantages of having your family’s health history checked, and help you in making this decision.

Risk factors for breast cancer

A risk factor in breast cancer is any factor that increases your chances of getting it. But if you have one or multiple factors, it does not necessarily mean that you have breast cancer, or that you will develop it. A number of women with several factors, never develop breast cancer at all, and many who do develop this have no risk factors for it.

Some of the factors which might be responsible for increasing the risk of breast cancer are as follows:

  • Being a woman: Although breast cancer can develop in both males and females, it is always more likely that it occurs to women.
  • Aging: The danger of breast cancer increases with age. It is more probable for a woman in her fifties to have breast cancer than one in her thirties.
  • History of the condition of breasts: In case you have a biopsy of your breasts, and you find lobular carcinoma or atypical hyperplasia, there is an increased risk of having or developing breast cancer.
  • History of breast cancer: If you have previously had breast cancer in one breast, there is a very big chance that you will develop it in the other one as well. 
  • Family history of breast cancer: In case anyone in your family, be it your sister, mother, grandmother or daughter was diagnosed with breast cancer at a young age, chances are that you too might develop it. But in spite of this, many women with a family history of cancer never have or develop cancer themselves.
  • Inherited genes that increase the risk of cancer: Some genetic mutations that may heighten the risk of breast cancer can be passed from parents to children, or generation to generation. The most well-known gene mutations in this reference are known as BRCA1 and BRCA2. These genes can greatly increase the risk of breast cancer and other cancers drastically.
  • Exposure to radiation: If a child receives radiation in his chest for treatment, even in teenage or adolescence, the risk of breast cancer is increased.
  • Obesity or weight issues: Being obese or overweight increases your risk of breast cancer, as compared to a person at a healthy body weight.
  • Getting your period at a younger age: Hitting puberty and beginning your period before age 12 puts you at a greater risk of breast cancer.
  • Going into menopause at an older age. If you enter menopause at an older age, you are likely to develop breast cancer.
  • Having your first child at an older age: The risk of cancer is highly increased for those women who have their first child after the age of thirty.
  • Never being pregnant at all: Women who have never been pregnant are at a greater risk of breast cancer as compared to women who have had one or more pregnancies.
  • Taking postmenopausal hormone therapy: Women who use hormone medication combining estrogen and progesterone both for controlling the effects of menopause are at an increased risk of breast cancer. However, this risk decreases when the therapy is stopped.
  • Alcohol consumption: Consuming alcohol on a regular basis also increases the risk of breast cancer.

Also Read: How and why does aging effects a woman’s breasts?

Prevention of breast cancer

Bringing some changes in your regular lifestyle may help decrease the risk of breast cancer. You should try the following for making better alterations in your life:

  • Consult your doctor about breast cancer screening: You should discuss when to begin breast screening test, clinical breast exam, mammogram and other suitable tests with your doctor. Consult your doctor about the risks and advantages of the screening tests. With his help, you can decide the strategies which are right for you to tackle this problem.
  • Have a breast self-exam for breast awareness: You should try to become more familiar with your breasts. This can be done by occasionally examining your breasts, and inspecting them during breast self-exam for breast awareness. If there are any changes, lumps or any other unusual findings in your breasts, discuss it with your doctor. Awareness about breasts and breast cancer cannot prevent breast cancer, but it can help you understand and differentiate between changes that are normal and changes that are a cause of worry.
  • Setting a limit for alcohol: You should control the amount of alcohol you drink if you choose to drink after all. One drink a day does not harm, but more than that may put you at a risk.
  • Exercise and workout at least four days a week: Exercising for at least thirty minutes a day for most days of the week should be set as a goal. If you are not physically active in your regular schedule, ask your doctor if you are okay to start now.
  • Keep postmenopausal hormone therapy under control: A combined hormonal therapy consisting of both estrogen and progesterone increases the risk of breast cancer. Discuss the benefits and harms of such therapy with your doctor first, before going for it. There are some women who experience worrisome symptoms during menopause and these women are at a greater risk of breast cancer. To reduce this risk, use the lowest dose possible of hormone therapy, and that too if it is really necessary, for the shortest time period possible.
  • Have a healthy body weight: If your body is physically fit, and you have optimum body weight, the risk of breast cancer is reduced itself. If you already are at that weight, work to maintain it. And if you are not, start working on it now.
  • Have a healthy diet: Having a diet that consists of Mediterranean cuisine and extra virgin olive oil and nuts may reduce the risk of breast cancer. The Mediterranean diet mainly focuses on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts. People following such diet plan stay healthy and their body is comparatively safe from cancer.

Diagnosis of breast cancer:

Following are the tests and procedures for diagnosing breast cancer:

  • Breast exam: The doctor will check both of your breasts. Along with this, lymph nodes in your armpits are inspected too. The doctor feels or any lumps or other abnormalities.
  • Mammogram: Mammograms are X-rays of the breasts. They are commonly used as screening tests for breast cancer. If anything abnormal is seen in the mammogram, the doctor recommends you a diagnostic mammogram to further evaluate the abnormality.
  • Breast ultrasound: Ultrasounds use sound waves for imaging of deep organs of our body. They may be used to determine the presence of a lump, or the formation of a new one, or a solid fluid-filled cyst.
  • Biopsy: It means removing a sample of breast cells from the breasts, and testing it for the presence of cancer cells. It is the only sure and definitive way to diagnose breast cancer. In this procedure, the doctor uses a specialized needle guided by an X-ray or any other imaging device and extracts a core of soft tissue from the area to be tested. These samples are sent to a laboratory for analysis. Here it is determined if there is a presence of cancer cells within the sample or not.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging for breasts: Radio waves and magnetic waves are used by an MRI machine to image pictures of interiors of your breasts. An injection of dye is given prior to the imaging test. Unlike other imaging tests, MRI doesn’t make use of radiations.

Breast cancer risk reduction for females with a high risk

If the doctor has assessed the family history and determined that you have other factors, such as a precancerous breast condition, that increase the risk of breast cancer, you may discuss options to reduce the risk, such as:

  • Preventive medications (chemoprevention): Medications blocking estrogens, such as selective estrogen receptor modulators and aromatase inhibitors, reduce the risk of breast cancer in women with a high risk of the disease. Such medications bring a risk of side effects, so doctors reserve these medications for women who have a very high risk of breast cancer. Discuss the benefits and risks with your doctor.
  • Preventive surgery: Females with a high risk of breast cancer may choose to have their healthy breasts surgically removed (prophylactic mastectomy). They can also choose to have their healthy ovaries removed which is also called prophylactic oophorectomy, to reduce the risk of both breast cancer and ovarian cancer.
  • Family history of breast cancer: In case anyone in your family, be it your sister, mother, grandmother or daughter was diagnosed with breast cancer at a young age, chances are that you too might develop it. But in spite of this, many women with the family history of cancer never have or develop cancer themselves. 
  • Inherited genes that increase the risk of cancer: Some genetic mutations that may heighten the risk of breast cancer can be passed from parents to children, or generation to generation. The most well-known gene mutations in this reference are known as BRCA1 and BRCA2. These genes can greatly increase the risk of breast cancer and other cancers drastically.
  • Exposure to radiations: If a child receives radiation in his chest for treatment, even in teenage or adolescence, the risk of breast cancer is increased. 
  • Obesity or weight issues: Being obese or overweight increases your risk of breast cancer, as compared to a person at healthy body weight. 
  • Getting your period at a younger age: Hitting puberty and beginning your period before age 12 puts you at a greater risk of breast cancer.
  • Going into menopause at an older age: If you enter menopause at an older age, you are likely to develop breast cancer.
  • Having your first child at an older age: The risk of cancer is highly increased for those women who have their first child after the age of thirty. 
  • Never being pregnant at all: Women who have never been pregnant are at a greater risk of breast cancer as compared to women who have had one or more pregnancies. 
  • Taking postmenopausal hormone therapy: Women who use hormone medication combining estrogen and progesterone both for controlling the effects of menopause are at an increased risk of breast cancer. However, this risk decreases when the therapy is stopped. 
  • Alcohol consumption: Consuming alcohol on a regular basis also increases the risk of breast cancer.

When should you see a doctor?

In case you notice a lump, or dimpling, or any other change in the shape, size or appearance of your breasts, even if your recent mammogram was normal, you should consult a doctor for the same for a proper evaluation of the situation.

Also Read: Are Breast Cysts the same as Breast Cancer? Know it all about Breast Cysts

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