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Breast Cancer – Symptoms & Treatment

Breast cancer is a type of cancer that develops in the cells of the breasts. Primarily, cancer develops in a small, confined section such as the lobules (glands that produce milk) or the ducts (pathways that carry the milk from the glands to the nipples) of the breast. Cancer can also develop in the fatty tissue or the fibrous connective tissue of the breasts. However, with time it can grow more prominent in the breast and even spread to surrounding lymph nodes through channels or affect other organs by travelling through the bloodstream. The growth and speed of spreading of cancer varies per case – where some cancer forms can take years to spread beyond the breast; other cancer forms can spread more quickly and aggressively.

Breast cancer can occur in both men and women; however, it is most commonly found in women. It is the second most common cancer diagnosed in women after skin cancer and also the second most common cause of death in women after lung cancer. Fortunately, with the advancement in medical science and the upgrading of treatment technology and approach – breast cancer has become highly curable. Moreover, with the increasing awareness about breast cancer, early detection has become easy, which contributes towards saving lives from breast cancer. 

Types of Breast Cancer

There are several types of breast cancer which have been categorized based on their aggressiveness. Invasive breast cancer has spread to the other parts of the body, while non-invasive cancer is restricted in the breast. 

  • Ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS): This is a non-invasive cancer form that is confined to the ducts in the breasts.
  • Lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS): This is another form of non-invasive cancer that occurs in the mil-producing glands of the breasts.
  • Invasive ductal carcinoma: This is one of the most common forms of breast cancer that begins in the milk ducts but spreads to other nearby tissue. Once cancer spreads to the surrounding breast tissue, it can easily evade other organs and tissue.
  • Invasive lobular carcinoma: This form of cancer develops in the lobules and spreads to the nearby tissue.
  • Paget disease of the nipple: This form of cancer develops in the ducts of the nipple but later starts affecting the skin and areola of the nipple.
  • Phyllodes Tumour: A rare form of breast cancer that develops in the connecting tissue of the breast.
  • Angiosarcoma: This form of cancer grows on the breast’s blood or lymph vessels.
  • Inflammatory breast cancer: A rare but very aggressive form of cancer in which the cells block the lymph nodes which restricts the lymph vessels from draining, causing the breasts to become swollen, appear red and feel extremely warm. Triple-negative breast cancer: This is another but extremely aggressive form of breast cancer that is categorized by lack of estrogen receptors, lack of progesterone receptors and no additional HER2 proteins on the surface of the breast.
  • Male breast cancer: Though rare but men can be affected with breast cancer too.

Symptoms of Breast Cancer

An early stage of breast cancer might not show any symptoms unless detected via a mammogram. In some cases, the tumour may be too small to be noticed; hence, early-stage breast cancer can be diagnosed with a mammogram. That said, one of the most common signs of breast cancer is the formation of a lump in the breast, but not lumps are cancerous, a medical diagnosis will be required to confirm breast cancer. 

In general, different types of breast cancer can depict different symptoms; some of the common symptoms across breast cancer types include:

  • An abnormal and sudden appearance of a lump or thickening in the breast tissue
  • Pain in the breast
  • Redness, pitting and rashes on the skin of the breasts – like an orange
  • Swollen breasts
  • Discharge from nipple (apart from breast milk)
  • Blood discharge from the nipple
  • Peeling, scaling or flaking of the breast skin or tissue
  • Inverted nipple
  • Difference in the appearance of breasts and its skin
  • Change in breast shape and size
  • Tenderness in the breast
  • A lump or swelling under the arm

These symptoms do not confirm breast cancer since they can also be caused due to other reasons such as cysts. A medical examination is required to confirm symptoms for breast cancer and initiate targeted treatment.

Causes of Breast Cancer

Breast cancer develops when the cells in the breasts begin to grow and divide abnormally as compared to healthy cells. This causes the cells to accumulate and form lumps or massesBreast cancer usually occurs in the milk-producing ducts or the glandular tissue, known as lobules – and spread further through the breast to the lymph nodes or to the other parts of the body.

The exact reason for breast cancer cannot be identified; however, some common factors that are known to increase the likelihood of breast cancer include hormonal, lifestyle and environmental factors. In some cases, breast cancer can also be due to gene mutations passed onto generations of a family. 

That said, some other factors that increase the risk of certain people to develop breast cancer are:

  • Being female – since women are more likely to have breast cancer than men.
  • Increasing age
  • Abnormal breast conditions
  • Past record of breast cancer
  • Family history of breast cancer
  • Inherited gene mutations
  • Exposure to radiation
  • Obesity
  • Alcohol
  • Early age period (before 12 years of age)
  • Older age menopause
  • Conceiving first child at an older age
  • Never being pregnant
  • Postmenopausal hormone therapy

Treatment of Breast Cancer

Treatment for breast cancer is highly dependent on the stage of cancer, the type of cancer, the growth of cancer, etc. The size of cancer, its stage, as well as the tendency to grow and spread plays a critical role in deciding the course of treatment. Some of the common treatment options for breast cancer include:

  • Surgery: The most common form of treatment to remove breast cancer. Different types of surgeries include:
    • Lumpectomy in which the tumour and the surrounding tissue is removed, leaving the rest of the breast intact.
    • Mastectomy in which the entire breast or breasts are removed
    • Sentinel node biopsy in which the lymph nodes that receive the drainage from the tumour are removed. These lymph nodes will be assessed for cancer.
    • Axillary lymph node dissection: If the lymph nodes removed during a sentinel node biopsy are detected with cancer cells, additional lymph nodes may be removed.
    • Contralateral prophylactic mastectomy: This is an optional surgery where the patient can opt to remove both breasts even when the cancer is present in only one breast; this helps to reduce the risk of developing breast cancer again.
  • Radiation Therapy: This type of treatment uses powerful beams of radiation to target and destroy cancer cells. Most radiation therapies use external beams. In cases of advanced treatment, cancer cells can be destroyed by destroying cancer from inside the body by placing radioactive seeds or pellets inside the body of the patient, near the site of the tumour. These seeds or pellets stay in the body for a short period to destroy cancer cells. This treatment is also called brachytherapy.
  • Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy is a type of treatment that aims to destroy cancer cells. This treatment is usually done in combination with some other form of treatment; especially in cases where surgery is opted for – the doctors might recommend chemotherapy initially to help shrink the size of the tumour and make the surgery less invasive.
  • Hormone Therapy: If the type of breast cancer is sensitive to hormones, hormone therapy will be the recommended course of treatment. In this form, the doctor will prescribe medicines to stop the natural production of two hormones – estrogen and progesterone – in the body; these hormones are responsible for stimulating the growth of breast cancer tumours. This can help stop or slow the spreading of breast cancer.
  • Medications: The doctor will recommend certain medications that will target the abnormalities and mutations in the cancer cells. The type of medications will depend on the form of cancer, the stage or size of cancer. 

Although common, breast cancer can be easily prevented provided appropriate lifestyle and diet measures are taken. Also, early diagnosis of breast cancer helps to substantially reduce the impact of cancer.

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