BreastCancer.jpgTwo years ago, jade_amp23 posted in the forums an interesting question that got everyone thinking: “What will you do if you have breast cancer?”

That question is usually met with some measure of fear, if not altogether ignored for a much more pleasant topic of conversation. After all, breast cancer is the third leading cause of death in the Philippines, according to a research made by Corazon A. Ngelangel and Edward H.M. Wang published in the Japanese Journal of Clinical Oncology. However grim statistics are just one part of the story. The same research suggests that implementing a “nationwide anti-breast cancer scheme through public information and health education” plays a big role in preventing breast cancer. It adds that studies have revealed that there is a “one-third reduction in mortality attributed to breast cancer mainly due to mammography.”

No doubt, being properly informed is one of our biggest defenses against breast cancer. Read on as FN dishes out the details on everything you need to know about breast cancer.


WHAT IS IT?

In our previous article about ovarian cancer, we discussed that cancer starts when something goes wrong in the cell regeneration process. This malfunction leads to a tissue buildup called tumors, which can either be  benign or malignant. Benign ones are usually not a cause for worry, as they’re rarely life-threatening, and can be removed with ease. The malignant ones are the tumors to watch out for, as they’re the ones that can invade nearby organs, and spread to other parts of the body. Breast cancer happens when a malignant tumor develops in the breast. Breastcancer.org states that breast cancer likely begins in the milk-producing glands called lobules, or in the passages that drain milk from the lobules to the nipple. The site adds that breast cancer can also originate from the stromal tissues, which include the fatty and fibrous connective tissues of the breast.


CAUSES

According to the US National Cancer Institute, the exact cause of breast cancer remains unknown. However, just like ovarian cancer, there are several risk factors that women can refer to as guidelines. Ngelangel and Wang’s study refer to a study made by the University of the Philippines-Clinical Epidemiology Unit which cites the following risk factors:

  • Women who are currently using, or have used oral contraceptives in the last ten years are at a slightly increased risk of having breast cancer.
  • Post-menopausal women on hormone replacement therapy. The US National Cancer Institute adds that most women over 60 years old are diagnosed with breast cancer, and that post-menopausal obesity increases chances for getting breast cancer.
  • Women who have a family history of breast cancer or benign breast disease.
  • Infertility
  • Greater than 35 years of age at first pregnancy.

The US National Cancer Institute adds the following risk factors for breast cancer:

  1. Genetic changes. A study published in “Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention” states that around 5% of Filipino women who have breast cancer may be linked to a gene mutations.
  2. Radiation therapy to the chest
  3. Drinking alcohol.
  4. Women who had their menstrual period before 12 years of age.

Please remember that while these risk factors serve as guidelines, these are not clear-cut characteristics that lead to having breast cancer. The US National Cancer Institute assures us that most women who have risk factors do not develop breast cancer.
SYMPTOMS

Just like ovarian cancer, symptoms don't usually show during the early stages of breast cancer. However as the disease progresses, changes start to become apparent. The US National Cancer Institute lists down things that you should watch out for:

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  • A lump or thickening in or near the breast or in the underarm area 
  • A change in the size or shape of the breast
  • Dimpling or puckering in the skin of the breast
  • A nipple turned inward into the breast
  • Fluid discharge from the nipple, especially if it's bloody
  • Scaly, red, or swollen skin on the breast, nipple, or areola (the dark area of skin at the center of the breast). The skin may have ridges or pitting so that it looks like the skin of an orange.

The site warns there is a high possibility that the aforementioned symptoms are not due to breast cancer. That’s why doctors underscore the need to do breast screenings on a regular basis and report any abnormality immediately for breast cancer detection.


SCREENING

Breast self-examination

Earlier, we quoted on Ngelangel and Wang’s study on breast cancer, and how it is important to be informed about the disease.  Sadly, the same study reveals that only 54% of women have ever done a breast self-exam. Reasons given for not doing a BSE include “no symptoms, busy, don’t know how, don’t like, don’t think important, always forget, afraid and not aware”. Breastcancer.org stresses that the BSE should be done monthly, and any changes should be reported immediately to your doctor. Don’t know how to go about it?  Head over to Breastcancer.org’s page to get a step by step guide on how to conduct a BSE.

Mammogram

The US National Cancer Institute describes a mammogram as an “x-ray picture of tissues inside the breast”. What’s good about it is that it can often show a lump before it can be felt. It can also show tiny calcium particles, which may be due to cancer, precancerous cells or from other causes. Other imaging tests such as ultrasound and Magnetic  Resonance Imaging or MRI can also reveal presence of lumps in the breast.

Biopsy

A doctor may opt to remove a tissue to detect cancer cells.  According to the US National Cancer Institute, it is a surefire way to verify whether cancer is present or not.


TREATMENTS

Surgery - According to the US National Cancer Institute, “surgery is the most common treatment for breast cancer.” Patients can either opt for the “breast-sparing surgery” (which removes the cancer cells but not the entire breast), or mastectomy (which requires the removal of the entire breast), depending on the cancer stage.

Radiation Therapy – this treatment involves high-energy rays to kill cancer cells, and may be used post-surgery to remove remaining cancer cells.

Chemotherapy – this treatment makes use of various drugs to kill cancer cells, and may be administered through IV or pills.

Hormone Therapy – this may be used to prevent cancer cells from growing by getting estrogen and progesterone from cells, essential factors in cell growth.  There are several options for women who have and haven’t undergone menopause.


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(Pink ribbon courtesy of Wikimedia Commons; Photo courtesy of Kent Ng on Flickr Creative Commons)

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