Breast cancer is the most common form of cancer affecting women. If it is diagnosed early, however, it can be successfully treated and even eliminated. Many women are alive and well because their cancer was caught and treated quickly.
Definition of breast cancer
Throughout our lives, the cells in our bodies reproduce in order to replace damaged cells. At times, these cells can begin to divide at an abnormally rapid pace. This anarchical growth can cause cancer.
Risk factors of breast cancer
While no single cause or trigger has been linked to breast cancer, there are certain risk factors:
- A woman’s age (50 years and over)
- A family history of breast cancer
- A first pregnancy later in life or no pregnancy
- The early onset of menstrual periods
- The late onset of menopause
- Smoking and the overuse of alcohol
- The use of oral contraceptives over many years
- Obesity, especially after menopause
Men can also develop breast cancer, but they represent less than 1 percent of cases in Canada.
Signs and symptoms of breast cancer
Most of the time, breast cancer is first noticed as a lump or swelling in the breast or armpit. The following signs may also be present:
- Change in size or shape
- Change in only one breast
- visible or palpable lump (breast or armpit)
- Inflammation of the breast or arm
- Orange peel skin
- Dimpling or puckering
- Increased warmth in the breast area
- Ulceration or sores
- More visible veins
- Change in appearance
- Nipple inversion (turned inward)
These changes can point to breast cancer, but they may also indicate another health problem. In fact, approximately 8 out of 10 lumps are non-cancerous. You should also know that the appearance of small masses, especially before menstruation, is not necessarily an indicator of cancer.
Detecting and treating breast cancer
Early detection for a better outcome
While no screening tests are foolproof, practising breast self-examination every month and undergoing a mammogram every two years, beginning at age 50, are the most reliable ways to detect problems.
Women who perform breast self-examinations every month become familiar with how their breasts normally look and feel, allowing them to notice changes, such as those in texture or shape. One thing is certain: a visual and physical breast examination every month starting at age 20 is crucial, given that 90 percent of palpable breast cancers are detected by patients themselves.
It is important to see a doctor as soon as you find any unusual lump. A complete physical examination and a mammogram will be done to help detect any abnormalities. If the doctor suspects cancer, he will use imaging techniques, which help to investigate further and establish a cancer’s degree of malignancy. A biopsy may also be necessary. Cancer not treated in a timely manner can metastasize and spread to other parts of the body.
The types of treatment available vary depending on the cancer’s stage of development. Chemotherapy, radiation therapy, hormonal treatment, breast-conserving surgery, mastectomy or a combination of these treatments are the main methods used.
Do you have questions about breast cancer and its treatment? Talk to your pharmacist. He’s there to help!