As the term suggests, ‘breast cancer’ is a kind of cancer that is found in the breasts. It originates in the cells inside the breast,. It can occur in both men and women, but it is more common among women. The cancerous cells begin to lump together in one spot inside the breast, forming a mass or tumour most commonly. This tumour can be felt by hand when the breast is prodded. Alternatively, there could be a change in the size or shape of the breast, or change in thickness of the skin. Rarely there could be a patch of inflammation manifesting on the breast skin.

In India, breast cancer is one of the leading causes of mortality in women. However, with better detection methods and screening processes, the survival rates have risen for this kind of cancer as it is very easy to detect and in early stages responds well to combination therapies.

What causes breast cancer?

Science has so far identified what happens when a person develops breast cancer – some cells inside the breast begin to grow abnormally. They outnumber the healthy cells and begin to group together to form a tumour inside the breast. In some cases, breast cancer cells are seen to metastasize or spread from the breast to the lymph nodes, and from there to other parts of the body.

In women, it often originates in the ducts that produce milk. This is known as invasive ductal carcinoma. In both men and women, certain forms of breast cancer known as invasive lobular carcinoma occurs inside the tissue or breast cells.

What is not known, however, is why breast cancer happens to certain people and not others. Breast cancer is often caused as a result of environmental, lifestyle, genetic and hormonal factors. Those with heightened risk factors – genetic predisposition to breast cancer, habits like smoking that may exacerbate the condition, etc. – may not necessarily develop this kind of cancer. Whereas, some with zero risk factors or any propensity for the disease contract it. It only means that the disease could be the result of a set of interactions between many factors, along with your health profile, exposure to pollution, stress, junk food, lack of exercise, and so on.

What are the symptoms of breast cancer?

Like mentioned above, breast cancer is observed to be a lump in the breast. It can be felt by hand. Other symptoms include:

  • A ‘thickening’ of some portion of the breast that feels different from the rest of the breast
  • Dimpling or pitting of the skin over the breast
  • A change in the appearance and size of the breast
  • Pain in the breasts associated with lumps in the armpit or neck
  • Eczematous skin changes on the breast with discoloration or flaking on nipple
  • Inversion of the nipple and tenderness when touched
  • Change in position of the nipple or a rash around it
  • Nipple discharge
  • Flaking, crusting or flaking of the skin on the areola
  • Redness of the skin over the breast, with soreness or tenderness to the touch
  • Late stage diseases may show an ulcer or fungating mass on breast or surrounding area
  • In widespread or metastatic disease, there could be associated generalised symptoms like weightloss, anemia, and localized symptoms depending on sites of metastasis (for example cough and blood in sputum in lungs metastasis, fractures in bone metastasis)

  • The risk factors

    Some people are more prone to breast cancer than others. The risk factors for this disease are heightened with:

  • Having many children
  • Inherited breast cancer genes – if an older female family member has had it, you may carry the gene
  • Obesity
  • Increased age
  • Not having had a single child before menopause
  • Having children as an older woman, i.e. after the age of 35 years
  • Exposure to radiation
  • Treatment for perimenopause and menopause, which combines estrogen and progesterone hormones
  • High fat diet
  • Some breast diseases like fibrocystic diseases of breast
  • Smoking and drinking alcohol
  • Diagnosing Breast Cancer:

  • Breast self examination is an effective home screening.
  • Mammograms are X-rays of the breast and is an effective screening method
  • Clinical examination by a cancer surgeon
  • Ultrasound, CT scan and other imaging technologies to evaluate the extent of spread

  • Treatment:

    All breast cancer treatments and surgeries are designed to remove as much of the cancer as possible, and to prevent its recurrence. Depending on the stage of the disease, the extent of its spread and its location, the doctor may devise a treatment plan comprising of:

  • Radiation
  • Chemotherapy – this is done when the cancer metastasises
  • Mastectomy, in which the whole diseased breast is removed. This is recommended only when there are multiple tumours, and/or if the cancer is contained in one breast.
  • Lumpectomy, in which the cancerous tumour is removed while the breast is saved
  • Hormone therapy to limit the estrogen levels that feed cancer cells
  • Targeted therapy that uses drugs to prompt the body to fight the cancer cells, often in conjunction with chemotherapy

  • Disclaimer : The details provided herein is meant for informative purposes only. For detailed information related to the disease and its treatment please consult a relevant qualified specialist.

    Taking care of yourself after breast cancer

    Quick medical intervention and the right treatment are key to managing and removing the cancer from your body. The faster it is caught and eliminated, the lower the chances of a relapse.

    Apart from undergoing the doctor-prescribed course of treatment, there are a few ways in which women can manage the disease and live a better quality of life:

    * Eat a diet that is full of nutrients, especially antioxidants. A dietician can recommend the foods to eat and those to avoid.

    * Exercise and keep active, within limits. When the body is able to endure higher aerobic activity, gradually step up the intensity of exercise.

    * Join a support group of other people suffering from breast cancer. This keeps away depression and the group can also suggest good doctors, new remedies, etc.

    * If you like, you can sign up for clinical trials of new cancer drugs. However, do discuss the pros and cons of doing so with your doctor first.

    * Keep your frame of mind positive throughout the treatment, and indulge your hobbies to remain happy and away from negative thoughts.