Breast cancer is the most prevalent form of cancer in women. Most women diagnosed with breast cancer are over 50, but younger women can also get affected by it. About 1 in 8 women are diagnosed with breast cancer during their lifetime. Breast cancer can be cured if it’s detected at an early stage. In rare cases, men can also be diagnosed with breast cancer.
What is breast cancer?
Breast cancer is a type of cancer that begins in the breast. It may begin in either the left or right breast. Cancer starts when cells begin to grow out of control. It’s crucial to realize that most breast lumps are benign and not cancerous (malignant). Non-cancer breast tumors are abnormal growths but do not spread outside the breast. They are not life-threatening, but some types of benign breast lumps can increase a woman’s risk of getting breast cancer. An oncologist needs to check any breast lump or change to determine if it is benign or malignant (cancer) and if it might affect your future cancer risk.
Is breast cancer curable?
Yes, breast cancer is curable in the early stages of the disease. Hence early detection is of prime importance. In advanced stages, we can improve the duration of survival, but a complete cure might not be possible. Breast cancer awareness and screening for early detection are equally essential tasks as the treatment. This helps us in early diagnosis, and a smaller disease size at presentation is the most critical predictor (along with biologic subtyping) of the expected treatment outcome or prognosis.
Symptoms of breast cancer
Breast cancer can have several symptoms, but a lump or an area of enlarged breast tissue is the first noticeable sign of breast cancer. Although most breast lumps are not malignant, it is always advisable to have them examined by a physician.
If any of the following symptoms appear, you should consult with a doctor:
- A change in the shape and size of one or both breasts
- Discharge from either of your nipples, which could be bloodied.
- a growth or bump in one of your armpits
- Dimpling on your breasts’ skin
- an itchy rash near or on your nipple
- A change in the appearance of your nipple, such as becoming sunken into your breast
- Generally, breast pain is not a symptom of breast cancer.
Causes of breast cancer
The exact causes of breast cancer are not fully known. However, certain factors are known to increase the risk of breast cancer.
- Age – the risk of breast cancer increases as you get older
- If you have a family history of breast cancer
- A previous diagnosis of breast cancer
- A last non-cancerous (benign) breast lump
- If you are overweight or obese
- If you drink alcohol
Diagnosing breast cancer
After examining your breasts, The doctor may refer you to a specialist breast cancer clinic for further tests. This might include breast screening (mammography) or taking a small sample of breast tissue to be examined under a microscope (a biopsy).
Types of breast cancer
There are several different types of breast cancer, which develop in other parts of the breast.
Breast cancer is often divided into either:
- Non-invasive breast cancer is found in the breast ducts (ductal carcinoma in situ, or DCIS), which has not spread into the breast tissue surrounding the ducts. Non-invasive breast cancer is usually found during a mammogram and rarely shows as a breast lump.
- Invasive breast cancer – In this cancer type, cancerous cells spread through the lining of the ducts into the surrounding breast tissue. This is the most common type of breast cancer.
Other, less common types of breast cancer include:
- Invasive (and pre-invasive) lobular breast cancer
- Inflammatory breast cancer
- Paget’s disease of the breast
Breast cancer can spread to other body parts, usually through the blood or the axillary lymph nodes. These small lymphatic glands filter bacteria and cells from the mammary gland. If this happens, it’s secondary or metastatic breast cancer.
Breast cancer screening
Mammographic screening, where X-ray images of the breast are taken, is the most commonly available way of finding a change in your breast tissue (lesion) early on.
However, you should know that a mammogram might fail to detect some breast cancers.
It might also increase your chances of having extra tests and interventions, including surgery, even if you’re not affected by breast cancer.
Women with a higher-than-average risk of developing breast cancer may be offered screening and genetic testing for the condition.
As the risk of breast cancer increases with age, all women who are 50 to 70 years old are invited for breast cancer screening every three years.
Women over 70 are also entitled to screening and can arrange an appointment through their GP or local screening unit.
The NHS is extending the programme as a trial, offering screening to some women aged 47 to 73.
Find out more about breast cancer screening.
Find a breast cancer screening service near you.
Treating breast cancer
If cancer is detected early, it can be treated before it spreads to other body parts.
Breast cancer is treated using a combination of:
Surgery is usually the first treatment you’ll have, followed by chemotherapy or radiotherapy or, in some cases, hormone or targeted treatments. The type of surgery and the treatment you have afterward will depend on the type of breast cancer you have. Your doctor should discuss the best treatment plan with you. In a small proportion of women, breast cancer is discovered after it’s spread to other parts of the body (metastatic breast cancer).
Secondary cancer also called advanced or metastatic cancer, is not curable, so treatment aims to relieve symptoms.
Living with breast cancer
Being diagnosed with breast cancer can affect daily life in many ways, depending on what stage it’s at and the treatment you will have. How people cope with the diagnosis and treatment varies from person to person. There are several forms of support available if you need it.
- Stick to prescribed medication like hormone therapy and immunotherapy
- Exercise regularly
- Maintain a healthy weight, and add fruits and vegetables as an essential component of your diet
- Avoid red meat
- Maintain regular follow-ups and investigations as suggested
Preventing breast cancer
As the causes of breast cancer are not fully understood, it’s impossible to know if it can be prevented.
Some treatments are available to reduce your risk if you have an increased risk of developing the condition.
Studies have looked at the link between breast cancer and diet. Although there are no definite conclusions, there are benefits for women who:
- maintain a healthy weight
- exercise regularly
- have a low intake of saturated fat
- do not drink alcohol
It’s been suggested that regular exercise can reduce your risk of breast cancer by almost as much as a third. Regular exercise and a healthy lifestyle can also improve the outlook of people affected by breast cancer.
If you’ve been through menopause, it’s particularly important that you try to get to, and maintain, a healthy weight.
This is because being overweight or obese causes more oestrogen, which can increase the risk of breast cancer.