Understanding Breast Cancer: Symptoms, Treatment & Risk Factors

As the second most common type of cancer among women in the United States, breast cancer affects somewhere around one in eight women (12%) at some point in their lifetime. Though the death rates for this disease have fallen over the past few decades thanks to improved treatment and detection, the death rates are still higher than for any other cancer besides lung cancer.

Breast Cancer stock photo

Breast Cancer Signs and Symptoms
Breast cancer occurs when cancer cells form in the breast tissue. Some people do not experience any signs of breast cancer at all, but here are some common signs you will want to keep in mind:

  • Discharge from the nipple that isn’t breastmilk.
  • A new lump in your breast or armpit.
  • Pain within any part of your breast, including the nipple.
  • Irritation of the skin on your breast and/or dimpling of the breast skin.
  • Pulling in of the nipple.
  • Redness or flaking skin around the nipple
  • Changes to your breast’s shape or size.

Detecting Breast Cancer
On their own, none of the signs or symptoms we just mentioned indicate that you have breast cancer. But if you notice any of these signs or have any concerns about your health, it’s important to see a physician as soon as possible for further testing and information.

Some of the most common tests doctors use in diagnosing breast cancer include physical exams and health histories, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), clinical breast exams, breast ultrasounds, mammograms, and biopsies. Detection is extremely important in finding breast cancer early and being able to treat it before the cancer has a chance to spread or become incurable.

According to the CDC, the two most common types of breast cancer are:

  • Invasive ductal carcinoma: Where the cancer cells form in the breast ducts (the part of the breast that carries milk to the nipple) and then grow outside that area into other parts of the breast tissue, in some cases spreading beyond the breasts into other parts of the body.
  • Invasive lobular carcinoma: Where the cancer cells spread from the breast lobules (the breast glands that produce milk) into nearby breast tissues and sometimes into other parts of the body.

Treating Breast Cancer
Doctors treat breast cancer in many ways, and specific treatment varies from person to person depending on the type of cancer, the extent to which it spreads throughout the body (which is something called metastasis), and how the individual responds to treatment.

Some common treatments are surgery, mastectomy, chemotherapy, radiation, hormone therapy, and immunotherapy. Many other forms of treatment are tested in clinical trials.

The Risk Factors
Some people are at a higher risk for breast cancer than others. You may be at increased risk if you have a strong family history of breast cancer, or if you have inherited mutations in your BRCA genes that make them more likely to divide and change in ways that could potentially lead to cancer.

In some cases, people who are at high risk for breast cancer will have surgery to reduce their risk. This could be a mastectomy, where the breast tissue is removed, or a salpingo-oophorectomy, where the ovaries and fallopian tubes are removed.

Aside from family history and genetic mutations, other risk factors for breast cancer include aging (most breast cancer cases are diagnosed in women older than 50), early menstrual periods (before age 12) and late menopause (after age 55), having dense breasts, a personal history of breast cancer, and having radiation therapy to the chest or breast region in the past.

All of these factors are out of your control, but you do have control over a few risk factors. Lack of physical activity and exercise, taking certain oral contraceptives and hormones, being overweight or obese after menopause, and high alcohol consumption all put you at an increased risk for breast cancer.

So what exactly can you do to lower your risk? Exercise, maintain a healthy weight, keeping your alcohol consumption to one drink each day or less, and consult with your physician about the risks related to some oral contraceptives and hormone replacement therapy. All of these may help lower your risk of getting breast cancer.

If you would like to meet with a knowledgeable doctor, consider contacting Arizona OB/GYN Affiliates (AOA) at 602-343-6174 or visit www.aoafamily.com. We have offices in Phoenix, Ahwatukee, Casa Grande, Goodyear, Scottsdale, Gilbert, and Chandler.

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