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Breast cancer is the most common cancer detected in Indian women. It is also the leading cause of deaths in women all over the world. The survival rate is low in the developing countries due to low resources to fight the cancer threat. Cancer is treatable when detected in early stages but due to lack of awareness and screening along with diagnosis in advanced stages accounts to loss of life.
One of the main causes of concern is that the majority of Indian women diagnosed with breast cancer don’t have any knowledge about their condition.
Understanding Breast Cancer
Women-breasts are made up of glands called lobules that produce milk and thin tubes called ducts that carry the milk from the lobules to the nipple. They also consist of fat, connective tissue, lymph nodes, and blood vessels. The breasts consist of billions of microscopic cells and these cells multiply in an orderly manner – where new cells are made to replace the older ones.
Cancer is a broad term characterised by the abnormal growth of cells and its spreading into the surrounding tissues. Cancer can begin almost anywhere in the human body. Cancer that starts in the cells of the breast is known as breast cancer. Breast cancer occurs when malignant tumours develop in the breast.
Types of Breast Cancer
Breast cancer usually starts in the tissues of the lobules or the ducts. A breast cancer that gets started in the ducts/thin tubes is called ductal carcinoma, while the one that develops from the lobules/milk producing glands is known as lobular carcinoma.
Over time, cancer cells can invade nearby healthy breast tissues and make their way into the underarm lymph nodes (the small organs that filter out foreign substances into the body). If cancer cells get into lymph nodes, then they can easily spread to other parts of the body.
Breast cancer is caused when a cell’s DNA is damaged (mistake in the genetic material), but how or why that DNA becomes damaged is unknown. The cause could be genetic or environmental, or in most cases, the combination of the both. The exact cause of breast cancer is still unknown; however, there are certain established risk factors.
A risk factor is something that may increase the chance of getting a disease. Risk factors that can’t be avoided include:
- Age – The chances of getting breast cancer rises as the woman gets older.
- Genes – Women who have a family history of breast or ovarian cancer should undergo a medical examination as they have greater chances.
- Personal factors – Beginning periods before the age of 12 or going through menopause after the age of 55 is also a factor to be taken care of.
Other Risk factors include:
- Smoking and drinking alcohol
- Being obese
- Using hormone replacement therapy
- Taking birth control pills
- Not having children or having the first child after the age of 35
- Having dense breast tissue
Relating to these risk factor(s) does not mean that a woman will develop breast cancer; many women who have risk factors never develop breast cancer – it is, therefore, just about the increased chances that these factors may lead to.
- The first symptom of breast cancer is usually a thickened area or a lump in the breast.
- Change in shape or size of the breast.
- Unusual discharge from the nipple.
- Change in skin colour or texture.
- Retracted nipple.
Breast self-examination helps in early detection. Adult women should perform breast self-examination at least once a month and the best time is on 4th or 5th day of the periods.
Just follow these extremely simple steps:
Stand in front of the mirror and look for any change in your breast and nipples, observe the shape, colour, size, persistent pain and contour.
Check for any lumps, thickening, dimpling, or puckering and also look for any changes such as inward turning of the nipple, blood oozing, abnormal discharge, scaling, redness or swelling.
Use the 3 finger technique (index, middle and ring finger) to check your breasts. Press your breast and keep on gradually increasing the pressure in the circular motion. Follow a U-Shaped Path, starting from the armpit, to the bra line, breast bone and finally to your collar bone. Check yourself in various positions.
On noticing any changes or abnormality, consult your doctor immediately.
Encourage your loved ones to go for a yearly mammogram – a breast cancer detection process as it is helpful in early detection.
Other Tests and procedures to diagnose breast cancer include:
- Breast Ultrasound – When a lump is detected in your breast through self-examination or screening mammogram, the doctor recommends an ultrasound. It distinguishes between solid mass and fluid filled cysts.
- MRI – It is done to assess the extent of the disease.
- Biopsy – Tissue or fluid is removed from the suspicious breast area and then examined under a microscope to check for the presence of cancer cells.
Stages of Breast Cancer
The stages of breast cancer are important factors to determine the best way to contain and eliminate breast cancer.
Stage 0 (non-invasive) – No evidence of cancer cells invading neighbouring normal tissue.
Stage 1 – The tumour measures up to 2 cm and no lymph nodes are involved.
Stage 2 (invasive) – The tumour measures 2-5 cm or cancer has spread to the lymph nodes.
Stage 3 (locally advanced) – The tumour is more than 2 inches in diameter and cancer has spread to other lymph nodes or tissues near the breast.
Stage 4 (metastatic) – Cancer has spread beyond the breast, underarm, and internal mammary lymph nodes to other parts of the body.
The main breast cancer treatment options include:
- Radiation therapy,
- Biological therapy,
- Chemotherapy, and
- Hormone therapy.
Remember, early detection is the best prevention and minor lifestyle changes can help significantly reduce a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer.