Summary for HealthiNation's Breast Cancer
Hosted by Dr. Holly Atkinson, Internal Medicine
What is Breast Cancer?
Breast cancer will affect more than 200,000 American women this year. That means about one out of every eight women will be told they have breast cancer at some point in their life. Breast cancer to a lesser extent also affects men.
How Breast Cancer Happens
The breast is made up of five main parts: the lobes, lobules, fat, milk ducts and stroma.
During pregnancy and breastfeeding, the lobules produce milk, which travels through the ducts to the nipple.
Most breast cancers originate inside the milk ducts, but it can start anywhere in the breast tissue. This happens when cells turn cancerous and start to grow unchecked. As with other cancers, these cells are abnormal and divide and grow rapidly, often resulting in the development of a lump.
Breast cancer can spread via the lymph vessels in the breast. Lymph vessels carry a colorless fluid that supports the immune system and removes waste from the cells. These vessels are connected to the lymph nodes—a type of gland located throughout the body. A lymph gland is often the first place cancer will spread to beyond the breast.
Signs & Symptoms of Breast Cancer
Signs and symptoms of breast cancer include:
- A lump anywhere in the breast tissue
- Spontaneous clear or bloody discharge from the nipple
- Retraction or indentation of the nipple
- A change in size or contours of the breast
- Any flattening or indentation of the skin covering the breast
- Redness or pitting of the skin over the breast.
While these signs and symptoms may be due to cancer, they can be the result of other diseases and conditions.
Only your doctor or an oncologist will be able to tell you if you have breast cancer. If you think you may be at risk, and especially if you have any of the warning signs, call your doctor.
Breast Cancer Screening
A woman's breast screening program may vary, depending on family history and other significant risk factors.
The process typically consists of the following:
- Breast Self Examination (BSE). This should be done at least once a month.
- Clinical Breast Examination. This is a physical examination performed by your doctor.
- Mammogram. A mammogram uses a series of x-rays to capture images of your breast tissue to better see the lump in your breast. The test typically lasts about 30 minutes, and you should avoid drinking caffeine for two days prior to the exam to reduce breast tenderness. And don't wear deodorant, which contains aluminum and can interfere with the quality of the image.
- If the mammogram confirms that you have a lump, your doctor will order additional tests to determine if the lump is cancerous.
- Biopsy. A biopsy is a procedure that requires removing a sample of the tissue from your breast with a small needle. Depending on how deep the lump is located within your breast, the doctor may have to remove a larger sample to properly test it for cancer.
- Regular testing is extremely important. The American Cancer Society recommends the following guidelines for breast cancer screening:
- Know how your breasts normally feel and report any changes to your doctor. Starting in your 20s, breast self-examination is very important.
- If you're in your 20s or 30s, have a clinical breast exam every three years, and have one every year if you're 40 or older.
- And if you can, schedule your routine mammogram right after your menstrual cycle, when your breasts are least tender.
- If you're at greater risk of breast cancer because of your family history, genetic makeup, past breast cancer or other significant risk factors, talk with your doctor. You may benefit from more frequent exams, earlier mammograms and/or additional tests.
The most common sign of a potential problem starts with a change in the size, or the feel of your breast, such as a lump. If you find a lump, this does not necessarily mean that you have breast cancer, but you should tell your doctor, so it can be further investigated.
Treating Breast Cancer
If your tests show you have breast cancer, you should work closely with your doctor to figure out the best treatment for you. To do that, your doctor will consider many different factors including the stage of your cancer, your age, the size and shape of your breasts, and your feelings about your body.
- The most common treatment for breast cancer is surgery. The two main types are lumpectomy with radiation, and mastectomy. During a lumpectomy, your surgeon will only remove the cancerous lump and as little of the surrounding tissue as possible. This surgery largely keeps your breast tissue intact.
- A mastectomy is a more dramatic surgery, because more of the breast tissue is removed. The amount removed depends on how far the cancer has spread. Reconstructive surgery is an option that you should talk to your doctor about.
- Radiation or Chemotherapy. After the surgery, it's possible that radiation or chemotherapy will be needed for some period of time to help eradicate any cancer that may have spread in your body.
Remember, the earlier you detect breast cancer through regular exams and screenings, the better chances you have to beat the disease.
HealthiNation offers health information for educational purposes only; this information is not meant as medical advice. Always consult your doctor about your specific health condition.