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Breast Cancer – An Overview

Breast Cancer – An Overview

UL
Written by Uta Leyke
Last Update: May 22, 2024
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Breast cancer is the most common cancer diagnosis for women in the US. You may already know several women who’ve gone through this experience but it’s different when it happens to you. It’s important to inform yourself with accurate facts about breast cancer. Being able to recognise the symptoms of breast cancer and getting regular screenings can help support early detection. This can make a huge difference to the outcome of the condition.

So, here’s a complete overview of breast cancer. You’ll learn to recognize the symptoms of breast cancer and how to manage living with the condition.

Note: If you are interested in finding out more information on the various topics mentioned here, click on the links within this article to access more specific content.

 

What is breast cancer?

In order to get a good understanding of breast cancer, it’s important to know a little bit about the anatomy of the breast. The breast consists of three main parts:

  • The lobules, which are the glands that produce milk
  • The ducts, which are the tubes that carry milk to the nipple
  • The connective tissue, which is mostly fibrous and fatty tissue that surrounds the ducts and lobules and gives the breast its shape.

With breast cancer, certain cells in the breast start growing out of control. Breast cancer mostly occurs in women, with about 1 in 7 women being affected during their lifetime. Most of these women are over the age of 50, although younger women can be affected as well.

There are also cases where men are affected by breast cancer, although this is more rare. In the United States, there are about 240,000 new cases of breast cancer diagnosed every year, making breast cancer the second most common cancer that women can experience in the US. The mortality rate for breast cancer is quite high. Roughly 42,000 women and 500 men die every year due to the disease.

Because breast cancer is quite common and the prognosis is significantly better when detected early, it’s crucial to be well-informed about the condition and be aware of potential symptoms. Knowing what is normal for you and your breasts and performing regular breast cancer checks can help with early detection and better outcomes.

What are the symptoms of breast cancer?

It is important to be aware of breast cancer symptoms as they can help people find a diagnosis and appropriate treatment early on. Regularly checking the breasts for any changes makes it easier to notice potential problems.

Most signs of breast cancer in women have to do with the appearance or look and feel of the breast or the nipple. Some common early signs of breast cancer are:

  • A new lump or thickened area
  • A change in the size or shape of the breast
  • Discharge from the nipple
  • A change in the appearance of the nipple, which may appear as red, dry, itchy, swollen or sunken into the breast
  • A lump or swelling in the armpit
  • A change in the look or feel of the skin, which may appear as a small swollen area, a dimpling, a rash or redness.

If you notice any of these changes, then it’s important to see your healthcare provider for further examination. Keep in mind that it’s normal for the breasts to change over time due to aging, hormonal shifts, and pregnancy. There are some changes that may or may not be suspicious for cancer. An example might be painful breasts.

Painful breasts can occur due to hormonal changes or infection, and may not necessarily be associated with cancer. Some types of breast cancer are painful, however, such as inflammatory breast cancer. Not every new lump is cancerous either, although it is recommended to have them checked by your healthcare provider anyway.

Are you experiencing symptoms or have you been diagnosed with breast cancer? Download the Mika Health app to keep track of your symptoms and their evolution.

What types of breast cancer exist?

There are several types of breast cancer which can be categorized according to their location or the presence of certain receptors on the cancer cells. Breast cancers can also be divided into 4 groups based on their receptor status. These are:

  • Luminal A breast cancer
  • Luminal B breast cancer
  • HER2-positive breast cancer
  • Triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC)

Each group of breast cancers has its own unique characteristics and requires different treatment strategies.

To find out more about the different types of breast cancer click on the links below to read our comprehensive cancer-type articles.

What are the causes and risk factors for breast cancer?

The causes of breast cancer are not fully understood by scientists. This makes it difficult to predict who will actually develop the condition and how to accurately determine your breast cancer risk. There are however some factors that may increase the risk of developing breast cancer at some point in life. Some risk factors for breast cancer are:

  • Age: most cases of breast cancer occur in women over the age of 50
  • Family history: certain inherited genes can increase the risk of breast cancer. Some known genetic mutations that are associated with a higher risk of breast cancer are in the BRCA1, BRCA2, TP53, and CHEK2 genes.
  • Personal history of breast cancer or lumps
  • Dense breast tissue
  • Exposure to hormones and hormone medicine
  • Being overweight
  • Having an inactive lifestyle
  • Consuming alcohol
  • Exposure to radiation

Many of these breast cancer risk factors are out of your control, but some can be changed to decrease the risk.

Want to know more about breast cancer and the impact it can have? Download the Mika Health app to find useful facts about breast cancer.

How is breast cancer diagnosed?

There are several ways to diagnose breast cancer. The most common methods include:

  • A mammogram, which is often used as a screening method
  • A breast ultrasound, which allows imaging of the breast using sound waves
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to get a detailed view of the breast tissue
  • A biopsy: a tissue or fluid sample of the breast that is examined under a microscope to look for cancer cells.

If breast cancer is diagnosed, the stage of the cancer has to be determined as well. This is important as it allows your doctor to determine an appropriate and effective treatment plan.

What treatments are available for breast cancer?

The treatment of breast cancer depends on which type of breast cancer you have and whether or not it has spread. Some options include:

  • Surgically removing the breast tumor and/or the whole breast
  • Chemotherapy, which targets the cancer cells using specific drugs
  • Hormone therapy, which blocks hormone receptors on the cancer cells so that they stop growing
  • Immunotherapy, which supports your immune system in fighting cancer cells and alleviating some of the side effects from other cancer treatments
  • Radiotherapy, which targets the cancer cells using high-energy rays.

Breast cancer is usually treated by a team of doctors at the same time. Each doctor specializes in a certain area of breast oncology. This ensures you receive an optimal treatment strategy that targets the cancer cells in multiple ways.

Tips for living with breast cancer

Besides the impact breast cancer has on your physical health, it can greatly affect your emotional and mental health as well. In order to cope with the diagnosis and the effect it can have on your well-being, it’s important to find accurate breast cancer information to keep you well informed about your situation. Besides that, it’s also important to feel supported. These tips can help you cope better with breast cancer:

  • Talk to your friends and family
  • Talk to other people who are in a similar situation. Many support groups exist.
  • Talk to a counselor or professional therapist, who can help you to process what’s happening.
  • Make time for yourself
  • Learn as much as possible about your condition and your treatment options.

Like other cancer treatments, breast cancer treatment can come with side-effects during or after treatment. Many cancer patients experience fatigue, insomnia, confusion, or memory loss. Exercising can be a great way to tackle these symptoms, along with taking time to recover after treatment.

Breast cancer treatment may cause certain changes to the body. Dealing with these changes may be difficult at times, so it’s important to be able to talk about them and to know what your options are. Some of the most common changes to the body after breast cancer treatment include:

  • Early menopause
  • Breast reconstruction or prosthesis use after a mastectomy
  • Decreased sex drive

Worried about your breast cancer diagnosis? Download the Mika Health app and find ways to help you better cope with breast cancer.

Where does breast cancer research stand?

Breast cancer research is always ongoing, as researchers are looking for new ways to prevent, detect, and treat breast cancer. Some of the most recent advances in breast oncology are:

  • 3D mammography, also called breast tomosynthesis, which is currently being used as a screening option to detect breast cancer. A 3D mammography provides images from different angles of the breast, which, when digitally put together, results in a 3D-like image. Researchers are currently evaluating if this method is better than traditional mammography.
  • A variety of recently approved drugs based on the type of breast cancer are available. By knowing more about breast cancer subtypes and the genes that are related to them, new treatment strategies may be developed.
  • Adding targeted therapies to hormone therapy for advanced HR-positive cancers in order to slow the growth of the cancer and to improve overall survival rates is a recent treatment strategy.

In summary

Breast cancer is a complex condition, with different subtypes, diagnostic tools, and treatment possibilities. Having access to accurate breast cancer information plays an important role in understanding and dealing with the condition.

FAQ

UL
Written by Uta Leyke
Medical writer
Uta Leyke-Hess holds a degree in business administration with a strong focus on healthcare. Since 2015, she has been supporting various medical websites by creating high-quality, yet easy-to-understand content with the help of a team of qualified external writers she has assembled.
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