Breast cancer is a cancer that develops in the tissues of the breast. According to the American Cancer Society, one in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime. Second to skin cancer, breast cancer is the most common cancer among women in the United States, and it is the second leading cause of cancer death in women, after lung cancer. Although breast cancer is far more prevalent in women, the disease can also affect men.
There are two main types of breast cancer: ductal carcinoma and lobular carcinoma. Ductal carcinoma accounts for the majority of breast cancers and develops in the ducts that carry milk from the breast to the nipple. Lobular carcinoma forms in the milk-producing glands, or lobules, of the breast.
Breast cancer can be invasive or noninvasive. Invasive breast cancer means it has spread from the point of origin to surrounding lymph nodes and tissues in the breast. Noninvasive breast cancer, which is in its early stages and has yet to metastasize, is referred to as "in situ."
Scheduling recommended yearly mammograms and performing monthly breast self-exams are important for early detection of breast cancer. Statistics show that 97 percent of women with breast cancer survive if the disease is discovered and treated before it progresses. There are currently more than 2.8 million breast cancer survivors in the U.S.
Breast specialist Dr. Kristi Funk recommends getting a mammogram at age 35, and if that test shows no abnormalities, begin scheduling annual breast screenings at age 40. "Cancers basically double in size every three to four months," Dr. Funk says. "So, if you go two years between mammograms, it's dangerous."
There are many factors associated with an increased risk of breast cancer, some of which cannot be controlled. For example, being a woman and growing older are the primary risk factors for breast cancer. In addition, particular races are more affected by breast cancer than others. According to Breastcancer.org, Caucasian women have a slightly higher chance of developing breast cancer than African-American women, but African-American women tend to be diagnosed at younger ages and are more likely to die from the disease. Women of Asian, Hispanic and Native-American descent have a lower risk of developing breast cancer and dying from it.
Women with a personal or family history of breast cancer also have an elevated risk; however, statistics show that approximately 85 percent of breast cancers occur in women who have no family history of breast cancer. Inherited genetic mutations, namely the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, are responsible for about five to 10 percent of breast cancers and about 10 to 15 percent of ovarian cancers.
Other risk factors for breast cancer, such as obesity, smoking and alcohol consumption, can be reduced with healthy lifestyle changes.
Common signs and symptoms
Since the advent of mammography screening, the majority of breast cancers are found at an early stage, before symptoms present; however, while mammograms are considered the gold standard for breast cancer detection, they may not always provide accurate results, particularly for women with large or dense breasts.
The warning signs of breast cancer are not uniform for all women, which is why doctors stress the importance of knowing your breasts so you can notice any changes or abnormalities. Common symptoms of breast cancer may include:
• A lump, hard knot or thickening of tissue in the breast or underarm area
• Sharp pain or tenderness in the breast
• A change in the size or appearance of the breast
• Clear or bloody discharge from the nipple
• Inversion of the nipple or dimpling of the breast skin
• Soreness, inflammation and scaliness of the breast skin, areola or nipple
Certain symptoms of breast cancer can be caused by other benign breast conditions, such as fibroadenomas and cysts, so it's important to consult a health care professional for a proper diagnosis and treatment.
Methods used to treat breast cancer include:
• Chemotherapy and other drugs that target and destroy cancer cells.
• Targeted radiation therapy
• Lumpectomy: Also referred to as a breast-sparing surgery, this procedure involves the excision of only the cancerous tissue, leaving the rest of the breast(s) untouched.
• Removal of the entire breast: Known as a mastectomy, this surgery removes all of the breast tissue. In many cases, the skin covering the breast is left intact for a reconstructive breast surgery, which can be done during the same operation or at a later date.
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