Breast cancer is a disease that can strike fear in the heart of any woman, and with good reason. It is the second most prevalent kind of cancer, after lung cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, there were about 194,280 new cases of breast cancer in the U.S. last year. This is including 1,910 cases of breast cancer in men. Of these new cases they expect 40,610, including that of 440 men, to be fatal. Although the survival rate for breast cancer is better than ever, these are still staggering numbers.
What is Breast Cancer?
Breast cancer is any cancer involving breast tissue, but it can take various forms and stages of severity. Most common are those involving the milk ducts or the lobules that supply milk to the ducts. Cancers found in the milk ducts are called ductal carcinomas. Those found in the lobules are called lobular carcinomas. Some cancers are slow growing and others are extremely aggressive. They are rated from Stage I to Stage IV, depending on progression and seriousness. Some are caused by environmental factors and others by genetic tendencies. Survival rates vary greatly, depending on the combination of factors, in each individual case. Treatments also vary depending on these factors.
Risk Factors for Brease Cancer
There are many conditions that increase your risk for breast cancer, but do keep in mind that having one or more of these risk factors does not mean you will contract cancer. It comes down to the fact that information is power. If you are aware of a risk for something, you can take steps to control those factors that put you at greater risk.
That said here are some risk factors to consider:
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- Being a woman. Although it is possible for a man to have breast cancer, as a woman, your risk is greater.
- Growing older. Your chances of getting a breast cancer increases as you age.
- Overweight. Those extra pounds can increase your risk of breast cancer.
- Waiting to have a child. A woman who has her first child after age 35 is at increased risk.
- Not having children. More menstrual periods in your lifetime means a greater chance of developing breast cancer.
- Heredity. If a close family member has had breast cancer, there is more of a chance that you will get it too.
- Cancer survivor. If you have had cancer in one breast the chances are greater that you will contract it in the other side.
- Early periods. Beginning menstruation before 12 years old can also increase risk.
- Later menopause. Beginning menopause after 55 years old also may increase risk.
- Hormone replacement therapy. Some combinations of estrogen and progesterone may have an effect on
- breast cancer risks.
- Imbibing in alcohol. Drinking may increase risk.
- Exposure to radiation at a young age. Radiation treatments in the chest area as a child or teen may increase risk.
Breast Cancer Symptoms
Often, there are no clear symptoms pointing to breast cancer. That is why it is so important to be aware and be tested regularly.
Some common tests for detecting breast cancer:
Although researchers are constantly searching for better ways to detect breast cancer the mammogram is still the most recommended. Recently the United States Preventive Services Task Force changed the guidelines concerning how often a mammogram is needed. Their recommendation is that an average risk woman between the ages of 50 to 74 be screened every 2 years.
May be used to detect hard to find cancer
This may be used in some cases especially to determine if a lump is a solid mass or liquid filled.
A biopsy involves removing a bit of tissue or liquid to be screened for malignancy.
Monthly self exams aren’t stressed the way were a few years ago, they help you be familiar with your own body and to detect any possible changes from month to month. Watch for any changes in the breast area, including the obvious, finding a lump or thickness, different from the surrounding tissue. Check for changes in appearance, as well. These could include a change in size or shape of the breast, dimpling of the skin on the breast, peeling of the skin on the nipple or if the nipple becomes inverted (sinks in). Gently squeeze the nipple and check for any discharge. If you notice changes talk to your doctor immediately.
Common Breast Cancer Treatments
Often surgery is recommended to remove the cancerous tissue. The extent of the surgery can range anywhere from a lumpectomy, removing only the cancerous lump itself, to a radical mastectomy, removing all the breast tissue and perhaps even the lymph nodes.
As with any surgery, there are risks involved including the possibility of infection, scarring and slow wound healing. In addition there may be some sensitivity or numbness from damaged nerves caused by the removal of surrounding tissue.
A systemic therapy, this simply means that it affects the entire body. Chemotherapy bombards the body with strong chemicals that destroy the cancer cells at the original site and any that may have spread to other areas. Occasionally, chemotherapy is given before surgery to shrink or eliminate the cancer with or without additional treatment.
Because of the way chemotherapy targets the fast growing cancer cells it also affects other more quickly growing cells in the body such as hair, nails and blood cells.
Side effects vary depending on the type of medicine you are getting and the dosage and can even be different from one person to another. Common side effects include fatigue, anemia, hair loss, infection, nausea and vomiting, nerve problems with hands or feet, cough or sore throat, things may taste or smell odd, weight loss or gain, skin, mouth or vaginal dryness, and lines on or color changes in the nails.
Make sure to tell your doctor of any changes or discomforts you may be experiencing because there may be ways to alleviate your symptoms and help you through a difficult transition.
You may also want to check with a nutritionist who has experience working with cancer patients. There are many foods and supplements that can help build you up and lessen some of the undesirable effects of the chemo. For example: You will need plenty of good quality protein to help your body repair itself and plenty of fruits and vegetables to help your body function at peak. Some people find a nutient dense addition like wheat grass makes them feel better overall. Be sure and check with your doctor before trying anything different.
Radiation therapy (radiotherapy)
Radiation therapy is a very, targeted treatment preformed by a radiation oncologist. It pinpoints the area in which the cancer is located and destroys the abnormal cells. It is used to reduce the risk of a recurrence of the cancer in the affected area.
Side effects are, generally, limited to the treatment site and vary from person to person. Reaction usually come on slowly and develops over the course of the treatment. These side effects may include itching, burning and redness of the skin in the area of treatment.
Immune targeted therapies
These are therapies used to target specific characteristics of the cancer cells and to keep them from having the means they need to thrive.
- Herceptin keeps the cancer cells from receiving chemical signals that encourage them to grow
- Avastin blocks the growth of blood vessels that feed the cancer cells
- Tykerb blocks proteins that promote uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells
Preventing Breast Cancer
Be aware of the environmental causes of breast cancer.
There is no doubt we live in a dangerous world. There are many chemicals in everyday use that can affect our susceptibility to certain cancers. Many unknown effects are caused by different types of chemicals and toxins and need further study to be proven, but in the meantime, there are steps you can take to protect yourself from possible hazards. These include limiting exposure in and around the home.
Go natural whenever possible. Many non-toxic household cleaners can be purchased or made from natural ingredients such as vinegar, lemon juice, baking soda and salt. Be aware of what ingredients are in any chemicals used in yard and garden and read all instructions to use them safely. Do not expose children to them and stay away from them yourself, if pregnant. A little prevention is fairly easy and can make a great deal of difference in maintaining a healthy life.
Note that some chemicals that mimic estrogen are commonly found in plastics used for packaging and food storage and are particularly conducive to promoting breast cancer, so it is best to avoid microwaving in any type of plastic to limit this risk factor.
You can find more information about toxins in our environment at Envirocancer.cornell.edu
Watch Your Diet
As with any disease or health problem, the best cure for breast cancer is to avoid getting it in the first place. There are many variables that each of us has control over that can lower the risk of developing any type of cancer. One place to start is with what we eat.
Logically, we all know we should eliminate the “junk” foods from our diet, but perhaps something a bit more drastic is in order. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (AJCN) reports that the incidence of breast cancer in women who follow a traditional Japanese or Mediterranean diet is much lower than in those who follow a traditional American diet.
The emphasis on vegetables, fruits, whole grains, fish and good fats is an excellent and tasty way to prevent health issues and is in sharp contrast to a typical American diet filled with nutritionally empty calories, heavily processed grains, large amounts of sugar, red meat and harmful fats. The very components so prevalent in this type of diet are what keep us sick and in pain.
Obesity and a sedentary life style have been attributed to a higher risk of breast cancer as well as many other health problems.
Know your Heredity History
Although, we don’t have a say in controlling our heredity, we do have the option of taking the best care of our bodies that we possible can. This includes eating and exercising properly and limiting our exposure to environmental toxins. These steps, alone, can go a long way in limiting the chances of contracting breast cancer
If you are already in a struggle with breast cancer, remember that there have been many others who have not only survived the fight, but who have actually thrived because of it and come out healthier for what they have learned. You can be the next success story.