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Breast cancer is one of the most common cancers in the world. There are over 55,000 new cases in the UK each year and the disease claims the lives of 11,500 women. In the US, it affects 266,000 a 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 the breast cancer has spread to the surrounding breast tissue, it is called an ‘invasive’ breast cancer. Some people are diagnosed with “carcinoma in situ” in which no cancer cells have 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.

The cancer cells are classified from low, meaning slow growth, to high, meaning fast growing. High-grade cancers are more likely to come back after being treated for the first time.

What Causes Breast Cancer?

A cancerous tumor starts with one abnormal cell. The exact reason why a cell becomes cancerous is unclear. It is thought that something damages or changes certain genes in the cell. This makes the cell abnormal and multiplies ‘out of control’.

While breast cancer can develop for no apparent reason, there are some risk factors that can increase the likelihood of developing breast cancer, such as genetics.

What are the symptoms of breast cancer?

The usual first symptom is a painless breast lump, although most breast lumps are not cancerous and fluid-filled cysts, which are benign.

The first place breast cancer usually spreads to is the lymph nodes in the armpit. If this happens, you will get a swelling or lump in one armpit.

How is breast cancer diagnosed?

  • Initial assessment: A doctor examines the breasts and armpits. They may do tests such as a mammogram, which is a special X-ray of the 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 the microscope to look for abnormal cells. The sample can confirm or rule out cancer.

If you are diagnosed with breast cancer, further tests may be needed to assess whether it has spread. For example, blood tests, an ultrasound of the liver or a chest X-ray.

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How is breast cancer treated?

Treatment options that may be considered include surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and hormone treatment. Often a combination of two or more of these treatments is 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 beams of radiation that target cancerous tissue. This kills cancer cells or stops cancer cells from multiplying. It is mainly used in addition to surgery.
  • Chemotherapy: a treatment of cancer using anticancer drugs that kill or prevent cancer cells from multiplying
  • Hormone treatments: Some forms of breast cancer are influenced by the ‘female’ hormone estrogen, which can stimulate the cancer cells to divide and multiply. Treatments that lower levels of these hormones or prevent them from working are commonly used in people with breast cancer.

How successful is the treatment?

The outlook is best 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 then give a good chance of a cure.

With the routine mammography offered to women between the ages of 50 and 70, more early-stage breast cancers are being diagnosed and treated.

For more information visit breastcancercare.org.uk, breastcancernow.org or www.cancerhelp.org.uk

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