Did you know that breast cancer is the most common cancer in women in the United States, except for skin cancers? But what is it, and what happens when you’re diagnosed? Can you prevent it? What are the symptoms? These are most likely the main questions going through your head right now. Here’s what you need to know.

What is breast cancer?

The National Cancer Insitute states that breast cancer is a common cancer that affects women and people assigned female at birth (AFAB). When cancerous cells in your breasts grow and turn into tumors, it is called breast cancer. Invasive breast cancer happens when the tumor spreads to other parts of the body, and this accounts for about 80% of cases.

Breast Cancer Stages

Providers can better determine a patient’s prognosis, or what to expect after treatment, by putting cancer in stages. The breast cancer stage is determined by the type of breast cancer, the location and size of the tumor, and whether the cancer has spread to other parts of the body. The stages are as follows:

  • Stage 0: There has been no spread of the disease from your breast ducts to other areas of your breast and it is noninvasive.
  • Stage I: Neighboring breast tissue contains cancerous cells.
  • Stage II: A tumor or tumors have been formed by the cancerous cells. The tumor can be larger than 5 centimeters across but not larger than 2 centimeters across, or it can be smaller than 2 centimeters across and have spread to lymph nodes under the arms.
  • Stage III: Neighboring tissue and lymph nodes have breast cancer. Locally advanced breast cancer is the term typically used to describe stage III.
  • Stage IV: Your breast cancer has progressed to other parts of your body, such as your bones, liver, lungs, or brain.

Typically, more aggressive treatment is needed for cancers in advanced stages. But this is only one factor to consider when choosing a course of treatment. In addition, age, family history, overall health, and other variables are crucial.

What causes it?

Genetic material (DNA) alterations are the cause of breast cancer. The precise cause of these genetic alterations is uncertain. However, occasionally these genetic alterations are inherited, which means that you are born with them. And, certain genetic alterations, like the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, can increase your risk of developing breast cancer. Your risk of ovarian and other cancers is also increased by these two alterations.

While there is no one specific cause of breast cancer, one of the most common risks is having dense breasts.  Women with dense breasts tend to have a higher chance of getting breast cancer. Other risks include;

  • Being 55 or older
  • Being a woman or AFAB
  • Having a family history of breast cancer
  • Inherited genetic mutations
  • Being a smoker
  • Drinking alcohol on a regular basis
  • Being obese
  • Prior radiation therapy
  • Using hormone replacement therapy (HRT)

Again, none of these risks are guaranteed to cause breast cancer, alone or together, but research has shown that they can increase your likelihood of having breast cancer.

What is your likelihood of getting breast cancer?

According to National Cancer Institute estimates, one in eight women will receive a diagnosis at some point in their lives. In the United States, over 3.8 million women either have breast cancer or have survived it. So while that may seem like a small number in comparison to the millions of women in the United States, that is still a high number and possibility.

How is it diagnosed?

In order to diagnose and determine the type of breast cancer you have, your healthcare provider may employ a variety of techniques, including;

  • An examination that involves a clinical breast exam (CBE). This entails examining the breasts and armpits for any lumps or anything else that seems out of the ordinary.
  • Your medical background.
  • Imaging tests like a mammogram, an ultrasound, MRI, or breast biopsy.
  • A basic metabolic panel (BMP), a comprehensive metabolic panel (CMP), and an electrolyte panel, although these are less common.

If the above tests come back positive that you have breast cancer, your doctor may have you take more tests, including;

  • Genetic testing for alterations in genes like TP53 and BRCA.
  • An HER2 examination. Your breast cancer cells can proliferate faster and spread to other areas of the body if they contain more HER2 than usual.
  • A test for progesterone and estrogen receptors. This test counts the number of hormone receptors, specifically those for progesterone and estrogen, in cancer tissue. The cancer is referred to as estrogen and/or progesterone receptor positive if there are more receptors than usual.

Can you prevent it?

Unfortunately, we don’t currently have any vaccinations or ways to completely prevent breast cancer. However, there are ways to reduce your risk of having breast cancer, including:

  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Reducing your alcohol consumption
  • Getting enough movement
  • Keeping your estrogen exposure to a minimum by reducing hormone therapy
  • Having a mastectomy if you’re high-risk

It’s also crucial to complete your routine mammograms. They might be able to detect breast cancer early on which can aid in your treatment options.

Types of Breast Cancer

Did you know that breast cancer isn’t just one type of cancer? In fact, if you’re diagnosed with breast cancer, there are many different conditions that may fall under this umbrella. These are the types of breast cancer that women (and men) can be diagnosed with.

Ductal carcinoma in situ/DCIS

DCIS is regarded as a precancerous condition that precedes cancer. “In situ” refers to the cells’ original location, devoid of invasion or tissue dissemination beyond the duct walls. DCIS is highly treatable and typically detected on a mammography. But since some cases become invasive, treatment is required.

Lobular carcinoma in situ/LCIS

This rare, noninvasive condition is characterized by abnormal cells discovered in the lobules, or milk-producing glands. It is a sign of increased cancer risk rather than cancer itself. “In situ” denotes that the cells are isolated from other tissues and are still in their original location.

Typically, LCIS doesn’t need to be treated. However, monitoring is necessary because it increases the risk of invasive breast cancer in women. A mammogram may or may not reveal it.

Invasive ductal carcinoma/IDC

When a patient has invasive ductal carcinoma, the cancer cells have penetrated the duct wall and infected surrounding tissue. This is the most diagnosed breast cancer.

This cancer also has many subtypes, including:

  • Adenoid cystic breast cancer: This uncommon type of cancer resembles “adeno” (referring to glands) cells, which are more frequently found in salivary glands. Treatment is simpler than for more prevalent ductal cancers.
  • Cribriform carcinoma of the breast: The breast cancer known as cribriform carcinoma forms clusters of cancer cells in the connective tissue that lie between ducts and lobules. This type is highly treatable.
  • Medullary carcinoma of the breast: This kind includes a soft tumor that resembles the medulla, a region of the brain. Although these cells may appear aggressive, they usually grow more slowly and are simpler to treat.
  • Micropapillary carcinoma of the breast: This aggressive type of cancer cells forms clusters.
  • Metaplastic carcinoma of the breast: This extremely uncommon form can be challenging to diagnose and has a heterogeneous cell composition. It is typically more combative than the other kinds.
  • Mucinous carcinoma of the breast: Mucin, a major component of mucous, envelops the cells in this type. This kind is simpler to treat and has a lower chance of spreading.
  • Papillary carcinoma of the breast: These uncommon cells have projections that resemble fingers and are referred to as “papules.” Compared to other ductal cancers, this type usually affects older women and is less difficult to treat.
  • Tubular carcinoma of the breast: Breast cancer that resembles tubes, or tubules, is known as tubular carcinoma. It is typically less hostile.

Invasive lobular carcinoma/ILC

After IDC, this condition — also known as infiltrating lobular carcinoma — is the second most common diagnosis of breast cancer. Cancer cells have invaded surrounding tissue in ILC after spreading from a lobule.

Inflammatory breast cancer

Cancer cells in this aggressive type of breast cancer obstruct skin-tissue lymph vessels. Swelling, redness, and an orange-peel texture result from this. It is frequently misdiagnosed as mastitis, an infection of the breast skin. Due to the cancer’s tendency to spread quickly, early treatment is crucial. It also usually affects women who are younger. With only 1% to 5% of cases of breast cancer diagnosed in the US, it is extremely rare.

Paget disease of the breast

This type of breast cancer, also known as Paget disease of the nipple, is characterized by cancer cells that usually affect the surrounding areola as well as the nipple’s skin. Patients frequently have one or more invasive breast tumors or DCIS. Between 1% and 4% of breast cancer diagnoses in the US are Paget disease of the breast.

Other (rare) types of breast cancer

The following are rare types of breast cancer, but you should still be aware of them:

  • Breast sarcoma: The connective tissue of the breast is where this uncommon and aggressive kind forms. It is particularly crucial to remove the tumor surgically.
  • Mixed carcinoma of the breast: Cancer that contains both ductal and lobular cancer cells is known as mixed carcinoma. It arises where a duct and a lobule converge. It is also referred to as infiltrating or invasive mammary breast cancer.
  • Phyllodes tumors of the breast: These rapidly expanding tumors, which typically affect women in their 40s, originate in the connective tissue of the breast. They are typically benign (not cancerous). They may also be a combination of benign and malignant (cancer).
  • Secondary tumors: A breast tumor that originated elsewhere in the body and metastasized as a cancer. It is not the “primary,” or main, tumor because it is “secondary.”

Symptoms to Watch For

There are numerous signs of breast cancer, including:

  • A breast thickening or lump, frequently without any accompanying pain
  • Changes to the breast’s size, shape, or appearance
  • Dimpling, redness, pitting, or other skin changes
  • Changes to the appearance of the nipple or the skin around it (areola)
  • Abnormal or bloody nipple fluid

Remember that the majority of breast lumps are not cancerous. Though it is possible to have cancer-bearing lymph nodes that are not felt, the lymph nodes under the arm are the most frequently detected first site of spread. Cancerous cells have the ability to spread to other organs such as the brain, liver, lungs, and bones over time. The spread can cause additional symptoms like headaches, bone pain, and/or inverted nipples.

Treatments

The course of treatment for breast cancer is determined by the type of cancer and the extent to which it has spread to the lymph nodes or other parts of the body.

To reduce the likelihood of a cancer recurrence, doctors combine treatments. Among them are:

  • Surgery to remove the breast tumor
  • Radiation therapy to reduce recurrence risk in the breast and surrounding tissues
  • Medications to kill cancer cells and prevent spread
  • Hormonal therapies, chemotherapy or targeted biological therapies.

An entire course of treatment is necessary for breast cancer therapies to be effective. The likelihood of a successful outcome is lower for partial treatment, so please always follow what your medical team advises.

Wrap Up: Living With Breast Cancer

While 1 in 8 women, or around 13% of the female population in the United States, will develop breast cancer in their lifetime, it no longer has to be a death sentence. In fact, 99% of women diagnosed have over a 5-year survival rate. However, it’s important to focus on screening and mammograms in order to diagnose breast cancer early. The earlier you’re diagnosed, the better your potential treatment plan and survival rate. Living with breast cancer still sucks, but it doesn’t have to be an end all be all.

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