Breast cancer is one of the most common cancers in the world. Every year there are more than 55,000 new cases in the UK and the disease claims the lives of 11,500 women. In the US, it hits 266,000 each year and kills 40,000. But what causes it and how can it be treated?
What is breast cancer?
Breast cancer originates from a cancer cell that develops in the mucosa of a duct or lobule in one of the breasts.
When the breast cancer has spread into the surrounding breast tissue, this is called an “invasive” breast cancer. Some people are diagnosed with ‘carcinoma in situ’, where no cancer cells have grown beyond the canal or the lobes.
Most cases develop in women older than 50 years, but younger women are sometimes affected. Breast cancer can develop in men, although this is rare.
Staging means how large the cancer is and whether it has spread. Stage 1 is the earliest stage and stage 4 means that the cancer has spread to another part of the body.
The cancer cells are sorted from low, which means slow growth, to high, which grows fast. High-quality cancers return more often after they have been treated for the first time.
What causes breast cancer?
A cancerous tumor starts with one abnormal cell. The exact reason why a cell becomes cancer 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’.
Although breast cancer can develop for no apparent reason, there are some risk factors that can increase the risk of 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 that are benign.
The first place that breast cancer usually spreads to is the lymph nodes in the armpit. If this happens, you will get a swelling or lump in the armpit.
How is breast cancer diagnosed?
- First assessment: a doctor examines the breasts and armpits. They can perform tests such as a mammography, a special x-ray of the breast tissue that may indicate the possibility of tumors.
- Biopsy: A biopsy is when a small piece of tissue is removed from a part of the body. The sample is then examined under the microscope to search for abnormal cells. The sample can confirm or exclude cancer.
If it is confirmed that you have breast cancer, further tests may be needed to assess whether it has spread. For example, blood tests, an ultrasound scan of the liver or an X-ray of the breast.
How is breast cancer treated?
Treatment options that can be considered are surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and hormone 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.
- Radiotherapy: a treatment that uses high-energy radiation beams, aimed at cancerous tissue. This kills cancer cells or prevents cancer cells from multiplying. It is mainly used in addition to surgery.
- Chemotherapy: a treatment for cancer by using anti-cancer drugs that kill cancer cells or prevent them from multiplying
- Hormone treatments: some types of breast cancer are influenced by the ‘female’ hormone estrogen, which can stimulate cancer cells to divide and multiply. Treatments that lower the level of these hormones or prevent them from working are often used in people with breast cancer.
How successful is a treatment?
The outlook is best for 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.
The routine mammography that is offered to women between 50 and 70 years of age means that more breast cancers are diagnosed and treated at an early stage.
For more information visit breastcancercare.org.uk or www.cancerhelp.org.uk