A diagnosis of breast cancer in a woman might be a frightening experience, although it’s important to understand that many have fought this battle and won. The prevalence of this disease in women means that early detection is absolutely the key, so regular health checks and mammograms are crucial.
In addition, it’s essential that you arm yourself with as much information about breast cancer as possible, so you know both how to recognize it and what you may experience if you do receive this diagnosis. This article will review the symptoms, types, treatments, and other details of this condition.
How Common Is Breast Cancer — And How Does It Form?
According to the World Health Organization, the most recent statistics from 2020 indicate that 2.3 women worldwide received this diagnosis, meaning it is the most prevalent cancer in the world. It is estimated that 1 in 8 American women will develop this disease at some point in their life.
Breast cancer develops similarly to other forms of the disease. When cells in the breast begin to grow and multiply at a rapid rate, they may form a tumor. It may be benign, meaning it’s not harmful and can be easily removed without affecting other tissue. If the tumor is malignant, you’ll receive a cancer diagnosis.
What Are The Stages Of Breast Cancer?
The first of the 5 Stages of Breast Cancer is Stage 0, often called ductal carcinoma in situ. When it comes to breast cancer forms, this one is the least invasive. At this point, the abnormal cells only exist in the original place where they began, the ducts, and in many cases, the condition never progresses onwards from there. However, because the possibility exists in about 1 in 5 cases, doctors will help suggest that you go through treatment.
It is one of the Stages of Breast Cancer, which is more invasive than stage 0, but most of the time, it is still the point where it can be treated successfully. In Stage 1A, the tumor is invasive but is 2cm or smaller and hasn’t invaded the lymph nodes.
In Stage 1B, the tumor is in the axillary lymph nodes but is less than 2mm. If there is a tumor in the breast, it is 20mm in size or less. According to the Canadian Cancer Society, women in this stage have a 100% chance of surviving to the 5-year mark.
The Second Stage of Breast Cancer is also subdivided into 2 categories. In Stage 2A, either of the following situations applies:
- There’s no tumor in the breast, but the cells have spread to 1-3 axillary lymph nodes. They have not spread to other bodily tissue.
- The tumor has spread to 1-3 axillary lymph nodes, but the size is smaller than 20 mm.
- The tumor has not spread to 1-3 axillary lymph nodes, but the size is 20-50 mm.
- In Stage 2B of the Stages of Breast Cancer, the tumor has spread to 1-3 axillary lymph nodes, but the size is only 20-50 mm, or the tumor is bigger than 50mm, but there is no corresponding lymph node spread.
The third of the Stages of Breast Cancer has 3 further subdivisions. In Stage 3A, the tumor may be any size, and it is already in 4-9 axillary lymph nodes. Alternatively, it might be bigger than 50mm and in 1-3 axillary lymph nodes. It has not invaded any other bodily tissue.
In Stage 4B, the tumor spreads to the chest wall, but not to any other bodily tissue. If the breasts have become swollen, you may receive a diagnosis of inflammatory breast cancer. Although the cells may be in 4-9 axillary lymph nodes, they have not progressed to other tissue.
Stage 4C of the Stages of Breast Cancer involves spreading the cells to 10 or more axillary lymph nodes or the lymph nodes under the collarbone or the internal mammary lymph nodes without spreading anywhere else in the body.
Stage 4: Metastatic
It is the last of the Stages of Breast Cancer, and at this point, the tumor can be any size. In metastasis, the cells have spread to other tissue and organs in the body like the liver, brain, or bones. Although this stage has the worst prognosis, only about 6% of cases present initially as stage 4.
What Are The Types Of Breast Cancer?
Cancer of the breasts is not one disease alone, but rather, there are different types of breast cancer that you could develop. The labels often primarily depend on the location of the tumor.
It is the most common type of breast cancer, and it occurs when cancer begins in the epithelial cells in the body’s organs and tissue. Carcinomas that start in the breasts are referred to as adenocarcinoma, and they often begin in the milk ducts or glands.
2. Ductal Carcinoma
Ductal Carcinoma is among the types of breast cancer that begin in the milk ducts, but in this case, it does not spread beyond this area. For this reason, it is relatively easy to treat and has a decent cure rate.
3. Invasive Ductal Carcinoma (IDC)
Once the ductal carcinoma spreads beyond the milk ducts into other areas of the breasts, the cancer is classed as invasive ductal carcinoma. Several subcategories fall under this heading. These types of breast cancer encompass about 70-80 of all diagnoses.
4. Cribriform Carcinoma
In about 5-10% of cases of invasive carcinoma, the cells invade the connective tissue in the breasts.
5. Medullary Carcinoma
Sometimes in women around menopause age, the carcinoma forms into a tumor with a similar shape to the medulla of the brain, and it invades the thyroid gland. It occurs in 3-5% of cases of invasive carcinoma.
6. Mucinous Carcinoma
Often occurring in women post-menopause, an ingredient in the mucus called mucin surrounds the cells. In most cases, this type does not spread beyond the area into the lymph nodes. It’s one of the uncommon types of breast cancer that occurs in 2-3% of invasive carcinomas.
7. Tubular Carcinoma
In this rare and aggressive form of invasive carcinoma, the cells grow tube-like forms inside, which develop and progress at a slow rate. It occurs in about 1-4% of invasive cases and has a reasonable treatment success rate.
8. Papillary Carcinoma
Often occurring in post-menopausal women with this carcinoma. The cancer cells develop growths called papules. It occurs in a very small number of cases of invasive breast cancer – about 1-2%
9. Invasive Lobular Carcinoma (ILC)
Rather than the milk ducts, this form of cancer starts in the lobules or milk-producing glands in the breasts. It makes up about 10-15% of all invasive types of breast cancer. It’s often treated with endocrine therapy, but some forms are resistant to treatment.
Less Common Cancers And Other Breast Diseases
In addition to the more common types of breast cancer, there are a few related diseases that are similar. However, some of them fall into a different category. The most common are as follows:
- Phyllodes Tumor – This is a very uncommon condition that presents as a tumor in the connective tissue of the breast. While not a form of cancer, some of the same treatments, such as radiation, surgery, and even mastectomy may be used. According to the American Cancer Society, several methods like chemotherapy, hormone therapy, and drugs are less helpful.
- Paget’s Disease – This disease of the nipple has symptoms that are similar to inflammatory breast cancer, such as itching, redness, flaky skin around the nipple and areola, an inverted nipple, or a discharge.
Breast Angiosarcoma – This is one of the rare conditions, which only occurs in 0.1-0.2% of cases. It starts in the lymphatic vessels in the breasts, and it could spread to the rest of the breasts, as well as the skin on your arms.
Symptoms of this condition may include a lump, a discolored area on the breasts or arms, or thickening on areas of the breasts. There may be some similarities in appearance to inflammatory breast cancer.
- Lobular Carcinoma In Situ – This is a condition that occurs when abnormal cells develop in the milk ducts of the breasts, and it does not spread beyond this area. While this is not a form of cancer, it does increase your risk of breast cancer developing.
Inflammatory Breast Cancer
Inflammatory breast cancer is a rare form of this disease, which occurs in about 1-5% of diagnoses. It’s an invasive ductal carcinoma that is fast-moving and aggressive, often progressing significantly before a physician diagnoses it. In addition, mammograms often do not pick them up, making detection more difficult.
This condition spreads outwards from its origin point into other bodily tissue and lymph nodes. The symptoms of inflammatory breast cancer include redness and swelling, which occurs because the abnormal cells block the lymphatic vessels.
Inflammatory breast cancer may also go along with pain, warmth, bruising, dimpling, thickness, or changes in the shape of the breasts, as well as possible swollen nodes under the arms.
Triple-Negative Breast Cancer
It is another one of the relatively uncommon types of breast cancer, which occurs in 10-20% of all diagnoses. Most of the time, this disease goes along with the development of receptors for estrogen, receptors for progesterone, or human epidermal growth factor proteins.
With a diagnosis of triple-negative, none of them have developed at all. As it is these receptors that treatments try to attack, this condition is more difficult to fight successfully. In addition, this form of cancer tends to be aggressive and faster growing than other types of breast cancer.
Although this is one of the types of breast cancer that is harder to cure, there are still treatment options like chemotherapy, surgery, or radiation, which may be effective.
Metastatic Breast Cancer
A diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer means that you are in stage 4 – the final stage of this disease. Physicians speak of metastatic cancer, which means that the disease has spread beyond its original location and into other bodily tissue.
Approximately 30% of women who are originally given a diagnosis of early-stage breast cancer end up with metastasis. While metastatic breast cancer is not necessarily an immediate death sentence, the 5-year survival rate for this disease is about 22% for men and 29% for women.
However, breast cancer could be treated even at this stage, and people have survived it for many years. In addition, medical research in this area is advancing daily, leading to even more powerful treatments in the future.
Who Gets Breast Cancer?
Most of the time, breast cancer occurs in women, but in 1 out of 100 cases in the United States, a man is diagnosed. When it comes to specific countries, as of 2020, Belgium had the highest incidence, the Netherlands second, with the U.S as number 10.
In addition, there are some differences among ethnicities in the risk of breast cancer. White women have the highest incidence at 13% lifetime risk, with black women not far behind at 12%. Asian and Hispanic women have an incidence of 11%.
What Causes Breast Cancer In The First Place?
The causes of this disease are multifaceted, and it’s not always 100% clear why one woman develops breast cancer, and another does not. There are several environmental risk factors that scientists have pinpointed, and there is also a genetic component involved.
Although the percentage is not high, about 5-10% of diagnoses have a genetic link. There are 2 specific genes that have been identified that increase the likelihood of developing this disease. If you have a family history, your doctor may recommend genetic screening for breast cancer.
What Are The Risk Factors For Breast Cancer?
For most women in the United States, the chances of receiving this diagnosis are about 12.9% on average. Certain critical factors increase the risk of breast cancer, and some of the main ones are as follows:
Family History – In particular, breast cancer does have a genetic link if you have first-degree relatives like a mother or a sister who have received a diagnosis. One first-degree relative with the disease doubles your chances of getting it as well. If this is the case for you, make sure you get regular screening.
- Genetic Factors – Certain genetic mutations are inherited, in particular the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, which can significantly increase the risk of breast cancer as well as ovarian cancer. People with a family history are encouraged to get genetic screening to check for this possibility.
- Age – As you get older, the risk of breast cancer does increase the majority of diagnoses being in women over the age of 50. While this is not a risk factor that you can change, you can certainly decrease your chances by developing a healthier lifestyle.
- Body Weight – Because added fat leads to higher estrogen production, it increases body weight after your menopause period, and it is a risk of breast cancer that should not be ignored. If you are overweight, modify your lifestyle to drop the pounds and lower your chances of a diagnosis.
- Menstrual Cycle History – Women who have had a longer total menstrual cycle, meaning they started their periods earlier and finished later, have a higher risk of breast cancer developing. It is because total levels of estrogen and progesterone in their lifetime will be higher, and these hormones exacerbate the disease.
- Diet – Poor diet is linked to obesity, which we have already said increases your risk. However, a review of the research found that diet does play an essential role in lowering your chances of developing the disease. Particularly, a plant-based diet high in fruits and vegetables.
Do I Have The Symptoms Of Breast Cancer?
It is crucial to be aware of the most common breast cancer symptoms, so you can do a self-check regularly to see whether any have developed. In that way, you can get to your doctor immediately for early detection and treatment if you have the disease.
Note that this is just a guide, and having some of these issues doesn’t mean a diagnosis is necessarily imminent. If you experience one or more of the following breast cancer symptoms, go get checked as soon as possible.
- A lump, either on your breast or under your armpit, which is new and does not follow the usual form is one of the most significant breasts cancer symptoms.
- Irritations on the skin of your breasts may include redness or swelling that may indicate inflammatory breast cancer.
- Red, flaky, or inflamed skin on the breasts or nipples may be a sign of inflammatory breast cancer.
- Pain in the area of your breasts or nipples that is not typical or related to menstrual issues.
- An unusual discharge from the nipples, like blood, is not breast milk or related to breastfeeding could indicate breast cancer.· Any change in the shape or size of your breasts.
- Dimpling around the breast area could occur in inflammatory breast cancer.
- A thickening of any area on your breasts is one of the typical breast cancer symptoms.
- A retracted or inverted nipple, which could indicate an internal tumor, is one of the crucial breast cancer symptoms.
How Do Doctors Diagnose Breast Cancer?
Naturally, the doctor will check to see if you have any breast cancer symptoms and take your family history. There are several imaging tests used as diagnostic tools, including:
- Mammogram – Typically the first screening for breast cancer, women should get a mammogram regularly starting around the age of 50. This tool takes an x-ray image of different areas of your breasts, looking for calcifications, which may indicate that you have the disease.
- Ultrasound – An ultrasound will use sound waves to detect the presence of tumors in the breasts, and it is more detailed and conclusive than a mammogram.
- MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) – This method uses magnetic fields and radio waves to produce a detailed map of your bodily organs. It can easily spot anomalies in the breasts, which may predict cancer. However, only a biopsy will indicate whether you have a positive diagnosis. It involves the extraction of tissue or fluid from the lump with a needle and x-ray. The least invasive option is a fine-needle aspiration, but if your doctor needs more information, they may do a core biopsy with a bigger needle or even a surgical biopsy, where the lump would be removed first.
There are other types of biopsies that look for added information, such as lymph node biopsy, image guides, or vacuum-assisted biopsy.
What Are Breast Cancer Care And Treatment Options?
Your recommended course of treatment will depend on some factors, including which of the Stages of Breast Cancer you fall into, the type of cancer, your symptoms, and your age. In addition, your wishes regarding your treatment will be considered.
Naturally, if you have a tumor, the first step will usually be surgery to remove the lump. However, following other courses of treatment, you may require eliminating cells that may remain or have spread. Let’s have a look at the most common treatment options.
Surgery For Breast Cancer
Surgery is an option at different Stages of Breast Cancer progression. It’s often the first line of treatment to remove the tumor. However, if the cells have spread beyond the breast or the lymph nodes, other procedures may be required. These are the surgical procedures often involved in treatment:
In this procedure, surgeons remove the cancerous tumor and some of the healthy tissue area around it, which can reduce the risk of breast cancer spreading. Generally speaking, physicians will follow this up with radiation treatment to ensure that all of the abnormal cells are destroyed.
Generally, this procedure is employed when someone is in the Early Stages of Breast Cancer and has not spread beyond. However, sometimes surgeons still do this procedure after the cells have gone into the lymph nodes.
If the tumor is very large or has spread to other areas of the breasts, the surgeons may remove them completely using a procedure called a mastectomy. In a simple mastectomy, the breasts, nipples, areola, skin, and lymph nodes are removed.
If doctors do a partial mastectomy, they will remove the lump plus a larger area of healthy tissue than in a lumpectomy. In a skin-sparing mastectomy, the tissue, nipple, and areola are removed, but most of the skin remains. With a nipple-sparing procedure, the breast skin and nipple remain.
In some cases, doctors may perform a radical mastectomy, where the breasts are completely removed along with the lymph nodes and chest wall muscle underneath the breasts. The procedure is sometimes used in cases of inflammatory breast cancer. However, it’s rarely necessary as other less extensive procedures may also be effective.
If the tumor has spread to some of the lymph nodes under the arms, surgeons will use this procedure to try to remove them. Following this, they will examine them under a microscope to determine if they are cancerous.
3. Breast Reconstruction Surgery
Many women who have had mastectomies want to follow up surgery to make their breasts look as normal as possible. Although it’s not always feasible, in many cases, breast reconstruction surgery can make a significant difference in the appearance of the breasts.
Chemotherapy For Breast Cancer
The primary goal of chemotherapy is to use medication to destroy cancer cells with either an injection directly into your veins or pills. So far, medicine hasn’t completely perfected targeting only cancerous cells and not healthy ones.
It is what often leads to side effects such as hair loss and nausea – they are after-effects of damaging normal cells. It is often given in conjunction with other forms of treatment, and it usually lasts from 3-6 months depending on the severity of the types of breast cancer it falls under and other factors. However, the active treatment is given in periods of several weeks with a rest period of a few weeks in between.
Chemotherapy is often done before surgery as neoadjuvant therapy to shrink the size of the tumor as much as possible. In addition, physicians often use it post-surgery as adjuvant chemotherapy to destroy remaining cancerous cells.
Hormone Therapy For Breast Cancer
Certain types of breast cancer are exacerbated by hormones like estrogen and progesterone, as their receptors can attach to them and cause the cells to grow more rapidly. In this case, hormone or endocrine therapy is given to help prevent the receptors from hijacking hormones.
Medications like tamoxifen and fulvestrant are used for estrogen-sensitive cancers to block receptor action. Some drugs lower estrogen levels by preventing its production, such as aromatase inhibitors or suppressing the action of the ovaries.
Other possible hormone treatments may include high levels of estrogen or even male hormones like androgens. Hormone therapy is often a primary treatment before surgery, but it may also be a key after-surgery therapy to lessen the risk of breast cancer.
Radiation For Breast Cancer
This treatment involves using high-energy rays or particles to kill any remaining cancer cells after a lumpectomy, mastectomy, or if cancer has spread to other body tissue or organs. The timing and extent of the treatment will depend on whether the radiation is targeting your whole breasts or just a portion, as well as other factors like which the Stages of Breast Cancer you were diagnosed with and the type. Several different forms of radiation may be given.
- External Beam Radiation Therapy – It is the most common type of radiation physicians employ with this disease. It involves the use of a machine to target the affected areas with radiation waves in the hopes of killing cancer cells. There are 3 subtypes of external beam radiation therapy.
- Intraoperative Radiation Therapy – This type of radiation is used in surgery immediately following the removal of the tumor before the incision is even closed. The technology for this type of therapy is difficult to acquire, so it’s not done very often.
- 3D-Conformal Radiotherapy – The equipment used in this type of radiation attempts to be very precise about the treatment area, preventing some damage to surrounding areas.
- Intense Modulated Radiation Therapy – This form of radiation is very similar to 3D-Conformal Radiotherapy, except that it provides a more intense beam to a specific area in the tumor. It makes it even less likely that surrounding tissue will be damaged.
- Brachytherapy – With this type of radiation therapy, the radiation is released inside the breasts instead of externally to the breasts. Not every woman is suitable for this treatment, as the location and size of the tumor play a crucial role.
There are 2 main types of brachytherapy, the most common being intracavitary. After surgery, doctors place a device in the area where the lump was previously. With interstitial brachytherapy, physicians insert small tubes around the area of the surgery, which releases the radiation.
Other Types Of Breast Cancer Therapies That Can Help
“Breast cancer changes you, and the change can be beautiful.” – Jane Cook
In addition to the medical procedures that may be involved in your treatment plan, there are some alternative methods and therapies that may have a significant impact on your course of treatment. Studies such as the one in Breast clearly show the positive impact of social support as part of the recovery process.
Therapy methods that lower stress levels like yoga or massage can be personally helpful to deal with the emotions that may surface during this period and boost your mental health. Alternative approaches like acupuncture may be helpful as adjunct therapies to deal with some breast cancer symptoms.
In addition, many women find it helpful to seek out counseling at this time to talk out the different feelings and issues related to their diagnosis and treatment.
What’s Life Like For People With Breast Cancer?
For most people, receiving a diagnosis of breast cancer may lead to a range of different emotions, which may include anger, uncertainty, sadness, fear, and others. Some people have better social support than others, so the people surrounding them may or may not understand or be sympathetic to what they are going through.
Many people find it helpful to seek out new forms of support during this time, such as breast cancer support groups where other women understand what they are going through. Therapy may also be helpful for many who want to vent their emotions and try to gain perspective.
At the same time, the cancer sufferer is dealing with breast cancer symptoms, as well as the side effects of the treatments themselves. The condition and treatments may lead to related life issues, like fatigue or low libido, impacting your sex life and perhaps your relationship. However, these problems also have medical solutions, so be open and let your team help you live a normal life as possible.
Having said this, many women recover successfully after treatment and go on to live a normal and cancer-free life. It is very possible, and medical advances are being made every day, which could increase your chances of winning this battle.
Breast Cancer Prevention
There are lifestyle methods you can employ to decrease your risk of breast cancer. Maintaining a healthy weight is important, as well as healthy eating, nutrient-rich diet.
There’s solid evidence that exercise can decrease your chances of a diagnosis, so try to engage in moderate to vigorous activity several times a week.
According to the Mayo Clinic, alcohol could increase your chances of developing the disease, so moderating your drinking can lower your risk. Interestingly, breastfeeding is a preventative factor. If you have children and you choose this option, know that your risk goes down the longer you nurse.
If you are going through menopause, you should know that hormone therapy may increase your risk of developing breast cancer. It is among the factors you need to consider when deciding on a course of treatment for your symptoms.
Breast Cancer Screening
While breast cancer may be a scary diagnosis, getting regular mammograms to screen for it can increase the chances of early detection and successful treatment. If you have some of the risk factors already, such as family history, your physician may suggest getting more frequent screenings or starting at a younger age.
If you are a woman without a family history, without serious risks, and who has never experienced any symptoms, the American College of Physicians strongly recommends that you get a mammogram once a year from the ages of 50-74. Once you reach the age of 75, you do not need to get breast cancer screenings.
Mammograms are important, but it’s also essential to check your breasts regularly to catch lumps or other breast cancer symptoms. You can perform regular simple self-checks by feeling around your breasts for anything unusual that could be concerning.
Doing these checks also helps you get to know your breasts better, so if something different does appear, you’ll notice it right away.
You may also consider getting regular clinical breast exams from a nurse or physician, who will perform a similar check with their hands to feel for any lumps, anomalies, or other breast cancer symptoms.
Breast Cancer Awareness
October is considered worldwide to be the ‘pink month’, meaning it focuses on breast cancer awareness. The primary purpose of this month is to provide people globally with information about the disease and especially to educate women about screening and early detection.
The World Health Organization plans events all over the world to teach women about breast self-examination techniques, getting regular mammograms, the Stages of Breast Cancer, and other pertinent facts about the disease.
There are numerous fundraising events and charities like walks, concerts, auctions, scientific forums, and other educational events. During this month, many people wear the pink ribbon to symbolize their support for the cause and women’s health issues.
Frequently Asked Questions
“Don’t let breast cancer take away the motivation to achieve your dreams.” - Diana Cohen
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, men do receive this diagnosis sometimes. However, it’s not very common. In the United States, the incidence is about one in every 100 cases. The types of cancer, its development, and the symptoms are similar to when the disease occurs in women.
Research has demonstrated a conclusive link between the amount of physical activity you engage in and breast cancer risk. Women who engage in regular physical activity have about a 25% reduced risk of breast cancer developing. It is true if the activity is recreational and at least moderately or vigorously intense.
According to research, breastfeeding is a protective factor against the development of breast cancer, and in particular, the more invasive forms. It is particularly true among women who give birth at a young age. There may also be a correlation between the length of breastfeeding and the extent of the risk reduction.
There is research indicating that women who have used oral contraceptives are at a higher risk of breast cancer developing. It’s not a huge elevation, but the science indicates about a 7% increase in relative risk in comparison with women who have never used birth control pills in their lifetime.
Whether you have already received a diagnosis or you want to know more about prevention, it’s important to arm yourself with as much information as possible. This guide provides you with a detailed account of all the relevant facts regarding the disease development, risk factors, breast cancer symptoms, and treatment.
Consider becoming actively involved in reducing your risk of breast cancer by improving your diet and physical activity levels, maintaining a healthy weight, drinking less alcohol, and practicing early detection and prevention by doing regular self-checks and mammograms.
If you develop breast cancer symptoms and receive a positive diagnosis, remember that this is not necessarily a death sentence. There are good treatment methods available, and this is a battle that many women have fought and won.