What Is Breast Cancer?
The breasts are female organs specialized for milk production and are positioned over the pectoral muscles of the chest wall. In addition to the glands and ducts responsible for milk production and delivery to the nipples, respectively, the breasts are also made up of blood vessels, connective and fatty tissues, and lymph nodes.
Breast cancer is one of the most common of all human cancers in the United States and occurs when cells in the breast multiply uncontrollably. The different types of breast cancer arise from the different cell types found in the breast.
Although significantly less likely to occur in men than in women, men may develop breast cancer. Statistically, less than 1% of all breast cancers occur in men. Men, like women, have breast tissue, but unlike women, do not usually receive the hormonal signals necessary to develop breasts. Some men, however, might experience breast tissue development as a result of abnormal hormone levels or from use of certain medications.
What Causes Breast Cancer?
Breast cancer develops as a result of changes to the genetic material within breast cells. These changes result in the pattern of cell growth and division characteristic of breast cancer. Although increased likelihood of developing breast cancer is associated with the following factors, according to the CDC, in most cases, physicians and scientists are still trying to determine what causes breast cancer to develop:
- Alcohol use
- Having dense breasts
- Genetic mutations
- Experiencing an early menstrual period
- Experiencing late or no pregnancy
- Starting menopause after age 55
- Lack of physical activity
- Use of combination hormone therapy
- Use of certain oral birth control pills
- Personal history of breast cancer
- Personal history of non-cancerous breast disease
- Family history of breast cancer
- Prior radiation therapy targeting the chest
- Use of the drug diethylstilbestrol
How Is Breast Cancer Detected?
Breast cancer detection begins at home. Regularly checking your breasts is important in order to detect any irregularities which may be indicative of breast cancer. When checking yourself, you should be mindful of the size, shape, and color of your breasts, so you can readily notice any changes, such as any dimpling, puckering, or bulging of the skin. If you notice anything concerning or otherwise unusual during a self-exam, it is best to consult with a physician to determine if treatment is necessary.
Breast cancer screening tests include physical exams and breast mammography. Some doctors perform breast exams as part of their routine physical examinations. When performing a physical examination, your doctor will record the details of any areas of the breasts suspicious for breast cancer and other abnormalities, if applicable. Your doctor will review the results of your physical exam and a comprehensive medical history collected when you come to our practice, and determine if a biopsy is necessary. A biopsy is a collection of a small amount of body tissue suspected, in this case, to be involved by cancer to be sent for laboratory analysis. Your physician might also check to see if your lymph nodes are enlarged.
According to the American Cancer Society, women should seek mammography exams (X-rays of the breasts) to screen for breast cancer in accordance with the following guidelines:
- Women ages 45-54 should receive at least one mammogram per year.
- Women ages 55 and older could either receive one mammogram every year or switch to receiving one mammogram every two years.
- Screening should continue for as long as the woman is in good health and expected to live 10 more years or longer.
If the results of a mammogram are suspicious for breast cancer, your doctor may choose to order additional imaging and/or a breast biopsy to reach a diagnosis and plan treatment, if necessary. Additional imaging might include a CT scan, PET scan, or PET-CT scan. A CT (computed tomography) scan uses X-rays to generate a three-dimensional picture of the body whereas a PET (positron emission tomography) scan uses a small amount of radioactive tracer to locate any cancer cells by how readily they take up the radiotracer. A PET-CT combines the features of CT scan with those of a PET scan.
Stages of Breast Cancer
‘Staging’ occurs when a physician uses test and scan results to determine which parts of the body are involved by cancer, in this case breast cancer. Staging is important because different stages of breast cancer are better addressed with treatments which may differ in amount, combination, or type. According to the American Joint Committee on Cancer (AJCC), the stages for breast cancer are as follows:
This stage is usually assigned only to non-invasive breast cancers, such as DCIS. At this stage, there is no evidence the cancer involves parts of the breast other than where the cancer originated.
This stage describes breast cancer that has invaded into the tissue surrounding where it started.
Stages II & III
The breast cancer has spread and may include more of the surrounding tissue, may involve nearby lymph nodes, or may have spread to both surrounding lymph nodes and other nearby parts of the body.
In this stage, the breast cancer has spread to parts of the body distant from where it began, such as different organ systems. These systems might include the bones, lungs, distant lymph nodes, liver, or brain.
Signs and Symptoms of Breast Cancer
The following may be indicative of breast cancer but may also be indicative of other illnesses:
- Breast or nipple pain, redness, scaliness, swelling, and/or thickening
- Nipple discharge (not breast milk) and/or retraction (inward turning)
- Dimpling, puckering, bulging, or irritation of the skin of the breast or breasts.
- Enlargement of the lymph nodes surrounding the breast.
It is important you tell your doctor if you have any of these signs and symptoms, so he or she may determine their cause and plan treatment, if necessary.
How Is Breast Cancer Treated?
Treatment of breast cancer, depending on the stage and type, may include chemotherapy, hormonal therapy, radiation therapy, and/or surgery. These treatments may be used individually or in combination based on your doctor’s recommendations. It’s important to discuss all of your treatment options with your doctor to help make the decision that best fits your needs. Some important factors to consider when deciding on a breast cancer treatment plan include
- Your age, health, and lifestyle.
- The stage of your cancer.
- Any other serious health conditions you have.
- Your feelings about the need to treat the cancer right away.
- Your doctor’s opinion about if you need to treat the cancer right away.
- The likelihood that treatment will help fight or cure your cancer.
- Possible side effects from each treatment method.
You may feel the need to make a quick decision, but it is very important to ask questions if there is anything about which you’re not entirely sure. It is very important for you and your doctor to communicate and work together to weigh the benefits of each treatment option against the possible adverse effects in order to ultimately determine which treatment option is best for you.
NYCBS Clinical Trials in Breast Cancer
Clinical trials are carefully controlled research studies that are done to get a closer look at promising new treatments or procedures. Clinical trials are one way to get state-of-the art cancer treatment. Sometimes they may be the only way to get access to newer treatments. They are also the best way for doctors to learn better methods to treat cancer. If you would like to learn more about clinical trials that might be right for you, contact New York Cancer and Blood Specialist today at (855) 528-7322 to learn more.