Breast Cancer Awareness Month

Breast cancer is one of the highest cancer diagnosis for women in America. In fact, about 1 in 8 women will develop invasive breast cancer over her lifetime. October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, dedicated to increasing awareness of the disease, including training for early detection and efforts to find a cure.

What is breast cancer?  

Breast cancer starts in breast tissue. Both men and women can have breast cancer, although it is less common in men. As with all kinds of cancer, breast cancer starts with cells that grow out of control and form tumors. Breast cancer tumors can start in different parts of the breast. Ductal carcinoma, or cancer that starts from the milk ducts, is the most common type of breast cancer. Less common types are lobular carcinoma, or cancer that starts in the lobules of the breast where milk is made, and sarcoma, or cancer that starts in breast connective tissue.

Breast cancer stages  

There are 5 stages of breast cancer, which are based on characteristics like size and type:

  • Stage 0: Non-invasive breast cancer with no evidence of cancerous cells leaving the breast. This stage is highly treatable, usually with radiation.
  • Stage I: Breast cancer cells are invading healthy breast tissue. In this stage, the cancer is either under 2 cm and has not left the breast or is a group of smaller cancer cells in the lymph nodes. This stage is also highly treatable, typically including a combination of surgery and radiation.
  • Stage II: Breast cancer cells are growing, but still only in the breast or nearby lymph nodes. The difference between stage I and stage II is the size and spread of the cancer. If the cancer is between 2 and 5 cm and has spread to surrounding lymph nodes or has not spread but is larger than 5 cm, then it will likely be classified as stage II. This stage is often treated with surgery, radiation, and potentially hormone therapy.
  • Stage III: Breast cancer has invaded nearby tissue but has not yet spread to distant organs. This is an advanced stage of the cancer. Stage III breast cancer is segmented into inoperable and operable, but both are still treatable with options like mastectomy, radiation, hormone therapy, and chemotherapy.
  • Stage IV: This is the most severe stage of breast cancer in which the cancer has spread to other organs in the body like the brain, bones, liver, and more. Stage IV is currently considered incurable, but there are treatment options to treat the disease by extending life and comfort.

Causes of breast cancer  

A mix of genetics, lifestyle, and environmental factors can cause breast cancer. About 5–10% of breast cancer cases can be linked to specific gene mutations than can be inherited. The most common genes are BRCA1 and BRACA2. If your family members have had breast cancer, you might be at a higher risk.

Being assigned female at birth puts you at higher risk for breast cancer. Breast cancer risk also increases with age and obesity. Radiation exposure, starting menstruation before 12 years old, starting menopause at an older age, having a first child after 30 years old, or not having children at all can all increase risk of breast cancer.

Breast cancer symptoms

The main signs of breast cancer involve changes to your breast. Changes to the feeling of the breast like lumps and any new thickness can indicate a tumor. Changes to the skin can also be important, like dimpling, any peeling, scaling, or redness of the breast skin. Finally, look for any changes to the overall appearance like shape or if a nipple inverts.

Monthly self-exams can help detect breast cancer early. These should be done in the shower to feel for any lumps, in the mirror to look for any visible changes, and finally while lying down to feel for any changes you couldn’t feel while standing. These monthly self-exams coupled with mammograms at annual visits for women over 40-years-old help find breast cancer when it’s in an earlier, more treatable stage.

Breast cancer treatment and medications     

Breast cancer treatment depends on the kind of cancer, how far it’s spread, and the stage. More often than not, breast cancer is managed with a combination of treatment.

  • Surgery is a common treatment for cancer that hasn’t spread much and surgeons can physically cut out the tumor. This can include mastectomy, which removes all the breast tissue.
  • Chemotherapy is used to shrink or even kill the cancer cells. This can be used with surgery and can be used when the cancer is not in one, easily removed tumor. Chemotherapy can be taken orally or intravenously.
  • Hormonal therapy works by keeping the cancer cells from receiving hormones they need to grow.
  • Biological therapy uses the body’s immune system to fight the cancer and control some of the side effects of the other treatments.
  • Radiation therapy uses radiation (similar to x-rays) to kill cancer cells.

Breast cancer impacts so many of us. Take this month to learn more about the disease, how you can catch it early, and treatment options.