In 2012 nearly 150,000 women were diagnosed with breast cancer. Out of these approximately 70,000-75,000 were treated back to health. In short, in every two newly diagnosed breast cancer women, one woman dies. This ratio does not help in changing the situation of women’s health but at least gives us the idea of how grave the situation is.
The only way to cure this fatal disease is to be aware of its presence in the early stages. Before we move any further, let’s discuss what is breast cancer?
“Breast cancer is a kind of cancer which develops from breast cells. Breast cancer usually starts off in the inner lining of milk ducts or the lobules that supply them with milk. It is an uncontrolled growth of breast cells.”
In simple terms, cancer occurs due to mutation in genes which are responsible for cell growth. Normally, old cells die and are replaced by healthy new cells. But some times, mutation can ‘switch on’ certain genes and ‘switch off’ others in cell. The changed cell then acquires the ability to keep multiplying and producing more cells, thus forming a tumor.
There are two types of tumors, one that is not dangerous to our health and the other that is malignant, has the potential to be dangerous. These malignant tumors are cancerous. If they are left unchecked, they can spread beyond the original tumor to other parts of the body. Breast cancer refers to a malignant tumor that has developed from the cells of the breast. With time, the cancer cells can spread to the healthy breast tissue and then spread towards the underarm lymph nodes (they are small organs that filter away foreign substances in the body). If the cancer cells reach these lymph nodes, they get the access to other parts of the body too. Breast cancer stages imply how far the cancer cells have spread beyond the original tumor.
Stages of Breast cancer:
The breast cancer stage is based on the results of the tests done on the tumor and lymph nodes removed during surgery or other tests.
This stage is used to describe a non-invasive breast cancer, also called DCIS (ductal carcinoma in situ). It means that the cancer has not yet spread beyond the milk duct into any normal surrounding tissue. DCIS, is not life threatening but its presence increases the risk of it developing into breast cancer at a later stage.
At this stage the cancer cells are entering the normal breast tissues. This stage is divided into two more categories: IA and IB
- The tumor is measured to be up to 2 centimeters
- And the cancer has not spread outside the breast and no lymph nodes are involved.
- There is no tumor in the breast but small groups of cancer cells, larger than 0.2 millimeters but smaller than 2 millimeters, are present in the lymph nodes
- Or there is a tumor in the breast, smaller than 2 centimeters and there are also groups of small cancer cells which are larger than 0.2 millimeters but smaller than 2 millimeters in the lymph nodes.
This stage is divided into two subcategories: IIA and IIB
- No tumor is found in the breast but cancer, larger than 2 millimeters, is found in a few (1 to 3) axillary lymph nodes (lymph nodes under the arms) or in the lymph nodes near the breast bone
- Or the tumor is 2 centimeters or smaller and has spread to the axillary lymph nodes
- Or the tumor is larger than 2 centimeters but smaller than 5 centimeters and has not spread to the axillary lymph nodes.
- The tumor is larger than 2 centimeters but smaller than 5 centimeters and there are groups of cancer cells, larger than 0.2 millimeter but smaller than 2 millimeters, in the lymph nodes
- Or the tumor is larger than 2 centimeter but smaller than 5 centimeters and cancer has spread to a few (1 to 3) axillary lymph nodes (lymph nodes under the arms) or in the lymph nodes near the breast bone
- Or the cancer is larger than 5 centimeters but has not spread to the axillary lymph nodes.
This stage has been divided into three categories: IIIA, IIIB, and IIIC
- No tumor is found in the breast or the tumor maybe any size and cancer is found in 4-9 axillary lymph nodes (lymph nodes under the arms) or in the lymph nodes near the breast bone
- Or the tumor is larger than 5 centimeters and there are groups of cancer cells, larger than 0.2 millimeter but smaller than 2 millimeters, in the lymph nodes
- Or the tumor is larger than 5 centimeters and cancer has spread to a few (1 to 3) axillary lymph nodes (lymph nodes under the arms) or in the lymph nodes near the breast bone.
- The tumor could be of any size but has spread to the chest wall or the skin of the breast and caused a swelling or an ulcer
- And it might have spread to about 9 axillary lymph nodes
- Or it might have spread to the lymph nodes near the breastbone.
- It can be inflammatory in nature and it’s typical features are:
o Reddening of a large area of the breast skin
o Breast feels warm and swollen
o Cancer cells maybe found in the skin
- There might be no sign of cancer in the breast or if there is a tumor then it might be of any size and would have spread to the chest wall or skin
- And the cancer, now has spread to about 10 or more axillary lymph nodes
- Or it has spread to lymph nodes around the collar bone
- Or it might have spread to the axillary lymph nodes or the lymph nodes near the breastbone
This is the final stage and the breast cancer has spread beyond the breast and almost near to the lymph nodes and other organs, like the lungs, skin, bones, liver and brain.
Doctors refer to this stage cancer as “advanced” or “metastatic”.
Breast cancer detected at an early stage has a 90% chance of being cured. Regular mammography screening helps in finding cancer at an early stage. Though, not all breast cancers can be found through mammography.
The most common symptoms of breast cancer are:
- A hard knot or lump or thickening inside the breast or in the underarm area.
- There is swelling, redness, warmth or darkening of the breast skin.
- There is a sudden change in the size or shape of your breasts.
- You might notice dimpling of skin.
- An itchy, flaky sore or rash on the nipple.
- You might notice the pulling in of your nipple or other parts of the breast.
- Your nipples might suddenly discharge clear liquid or blood.
- A sudden new pain on a particular spot that does not go away.
Lumps: Many of you might feel that your breasts are lumpy but that does not mean you necessarily have cancer. If you can feel the lumpiness throughout both the breasts then it might be normal breast tissue. You should see your doctor if there a new lump or a particular area feels different from your other breast.
Nipple discharge: Nipple discharge is normal and is rarely a sign of cancer. Nipple discharge is a normal bodily reaction when your nipples are squeezed. You should see a doctor only if the discharge occurs without squeezing the nipples, happens only in one breast and the liquid is not milky but clear or bloody.
Risk Factors of having breast cancer:
- Breast cancer is 100 times more common in women than in men.
- Chances of breast cancer are higher in women above 50 years of age.
- The risk is higher among women whose close blood relatives might have suffered through blood cancer.
- If you had breast cancer, which had been treated, then chances or reoccurrence are still there.
- Women who began menstruating at an early age (before the age of 12) or who had menopause after 55 have a slightly higher risk of contracting breast cancer.
- Women who have had gone through radiation treatment to the chest area have a higher risk of breast cancer.
- The women, who never had children or had children after the age of 30, have a higher risk of breast cancer. Being pregnant many times or at a younger age, at times reduces the chances of breast cancer.
- Women who use birth control pills or injectibles have a greater risk of contracting cancer. But the risk goes back to normal once the pills are no longer consumed.
- Studies suggest that breastfeeding lowers the risk of breast cancer.
- Alcohol, even as little as 1 drink a day, increases the risk of breast cancer.
- Obesity is also a factor in increasing the risk of cancer.
- Other reasons that are being looked into are: smoking, induced abortions, breast transplants.
Earlier, breast cancer was feared and considered shameful. Women tended to suffer rather than search for a solution. With the development in science and increase in survival rate, women began raising awareness about this disease and the possibility of a successful treatment. Today, pink ribbon is a prominent symbol of breast cancer awareness. The pink ribbon encourages us to focus on the ultimate vision to cure breast cancer through ever developing science and to show support to breast cancer awareness.
Therefore, I would only say that be aware, be healthy and get regular health checkups.