October is Breast Cancer Awareness month, a national campaign created to increase awareness of breast cancer. Most people know that breast cancer is a common disease in the United States, but all too often women don’t take the time to truly understand the disease and know their own risk, or they forget to take the appropriate measures that lead to early detection. Fortunately, increased awareness has led to a decline of breast cancer incidence rates over the past ten years. Through continued education and support, we all can help to reduce those rates even more.
What is Breast Cancer?
The American Cancer Society defines breast cancer as a malignant tumor that starts in the cells of the breast. These tumors are capable of growing into surrounding tissues or spreading throughout the body. Most breast cancers begin in the cells that line the milk ducts of the breast, but some can begin in the milk glands (lobules), and a few can begin in other breast tissues.
The lymphatic system, which helps the body fight infections, is one way breast cancer cells can spread throughout the body. If cells enter the lymphatic vessels within the breast, they can grow into lymph nodes (collections of immune system cells) located under the arm, and can in turn spread (metastasize) to other parts of the body.
Not all breast lumps are cancerous. They can be caused by benign changes in the breast tissue such as fibrosis or cysts. The occurrence of such changes is often accompanied by breast pain, tenderness, and swelling, which is worse just before a menstrual period begins. Benign breast tumors are abnormal growths but are not cancerous and do not spread throughout the body. Although benign conditions are not life threatening, they do increase a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer.
Breast cancer occurs in several different stages. Ductal carcinoma in situ(duct cancer in site) is an early stage of cancer which is still confined to the initial layer of cells where it began (ducts). Invasive carcinoma is when cancer cells have already spread beyond the initial layer of cells, as in the case of most breast cancers.
Key Statistics about Breast Cancer
According to the American Cancer Society, about 1 in 8 women in the United States will develop invasive breast cancer in their lifetime. Breast cancer is the second leading cause of death by cancer in women, with a 1 in 36 (3%) chance that breast cancer will be responsible for a woman’s death. On the other hand, there are more than 2.8 million breast cancer survivors in the U.S., which shows that this disease is treatable and curable if caught early enough.
Risk Factors for Breast Cancer
Breast cancer is associated with certain common risk factors. Risk factors which are out of a woman’s control include gender, age, genetic risk factors, family history, personal history of breast cancer, race, having dense breast tissue, having certain benign breast problems, early menstrual periods, breast radiation early in life, and treatment with DES while pregnant.
However, several risk factors can be attributed to environment and lifestyle choices. These include not having children or having them later in life, certain forms of birth control, hormone therapy after menopause, not breastfeeding, alcohol consumption, and being overweight or obese. In addition, smoking or being around tobacco smoke is possibly associated with an increased risk of breast cancer.
It is important for a woman to know that having some of these risk factors does not mean she will definitely get breast cancer, nor does the absence of risk factors mean she won’t get the disease. Risk factors can change over time, so it is vital that women understand the controllable risk factors and incorporate healthy lifestyle choices into their daily lives.
Fortunately, the earlier breast cancer is detected, the greater the chances of survival. Stay tuned for information on breast cancer screening and early detection methods, including how to perform a breast self-exam, in part two.