Breast cancer is one of the most common cancers in the world. Each year in the UK there are more than 55,000 new cases, and the disease claims the lives of 11,500 women. In the US it attacks 266,000 each year and kills 40,000. But what causes it and how can it be treated?
What is breast cancer?
Breast cancer develops from a cancer cell that develops in the lining of a duct or lobule in one of the breasts.
When breast cancer has spread to surrounding breast tissue, it is called ‘invasive’ breast cancer. Some people are diagnosed with ‘carcinoma in situ’, where cancer cells have not grown beyond the duct or lobule.
Most cases develop in women over the age of 50, but younger women are sometimes affected. Breast cancer can develop in men, although this is rare.
Staging means how big the cancer is and whether it has spread. Stage 1 is the earliest stage, and stage 4 means the cancer has spread to another part of the body.
Cancer cells are graded from low, meaning slow growing, to high, meaning fast growing. High-grade cancers are more likely to come back after they are first treated.
What causes breast cancer?
A cancerous tumor starts from an abnormal cell. The exact reason a cell becomes cancerous is not clear. Something is thought to damage or alter certain genes in the cell. This causes the cell to be abnormal and multiply ‘out of control’.
Although breast cancer can develop for no apparent reason, there are some risk factors that can increase the chance of developing breast cancer, such as genetics.
What are the symptoms of breast cancer?
The usual first symptom is a painless lump in the breast, although most breast lumps are not cancerous and are fluid-filled cysts, which are benign.
The first place breast cancer usually spreads to is the lymph nodes in the armpit. If this occurs, you will develop a swelling or lump in one armpit.
How is breast cancer diagnosed?
- Initial evaluation: A doctor examines the breasts and armpits. They may do tests such as a mammogram, a special x-ray of breast tissue that can indicate the possibility of tumors.
- Biopsy: A biopsy is when a small sample of tissue is removed from a part of the body. The sample is then examined under a microscope to look for abnormal cells. The sample can confirm or rule out cancer.
If it is confirmed that you have breast cancer, more tests may be needed to see if it has spread. For example, blood tests, an ultrasound of the liver, or a chest x-ray.
How is breast cancer treated?
Treatment options that may be considered include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and hormonal treatment. A combination of two or more of these treatments is often used.
- Surgery: Breast-conserving surgery or removal of the affected breast depending on the size of the tumor.
- Radiation therapy: A treatment that uses high-energy radiation beams focused on cancerous tissue. This kills cancer cells or stops cancer cells from multiplying. It is mainly used in addition to surgery.
- Chemotherapy: A cancer treatment using anticancer drugs that kill cancer cells or keep them from dividing.
- Hormonal treatments: Some types of breast cancer are affected by the “female” hormone estrogen, which can stimulate cancer cells to divide and multiply. Treatments that lower the level of these hormones, or stop them from working, are commonly used in people with breast cancer.
How successful is the treatment?
The prognosis is better in those who are diagnosed when the cancer is still small and has not spread. Surgical removal of a tumor at an early stage can give a good chance of cure.
Routine mammography offered to women between the ages of 50 and 70 means more breast cancers are diagnosed and treated at an earlier stage.
For more information visit breastcancercare.org.uk, breastcancernow.org or www.cancerhelp.org.uk