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Breast Cancer: Symptoms, Risk Factors, Prevention, and Treatment

By Erica Lynn


All around the world, the month of October brings about articles and campaigns on breast cancer as people come together to celebrate breast cancer awareness month (BCAM). BCAM aims to raise awareness of breast cancer and raise funds for research concerning this disease. While BCAM takes place in October, it is important to extend these efforts to the rest of the year as well and to keep educating the world about this disease.


Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women, and is the second most common cancer overall [3]. It is caused by mutations in the DNA of breast cells, which leads to abnormal growth of these cells as they divide much faster than healthy cells. One possible mutation is the mutation of proto-oncogenes, genes that help cells grow normally. When these genes mutate, the cells grow out of control, leading to cancer [9]. Another possibility is the mutation of tumor suppressor genes. These genes slow down cell division, repair DNA mistakes, or tell cells when to die. Therefore, when these cells mutate and are not working as they should, cells will grow out of control and not die when they should, leading to cancer [9].


The more that one is aware of breast cancer symptoms, the better chance there is of catching it early, which is when treatment is most likely to succeed. Therefore, in order to detect the disease as early as possible, it is important to do monthly breast self-examinations to check for symptoms [2]. It is especially important for females to be checking for breast cancer since female breast cancer accounts for 99% of all cases while male breast cancer only accounts for 1% [10]. Some common symptoms of breast cancer are lumps in the breast, changes in the size, appearance, or shape of a breast and/or nipple, and redness of the breast [3].


Although there are people that develop breast cancer without any risk factors, researchers have identified hormonal, lifestyle, and environmental factors that can increase one’s likeliness of getting this disease. These risk factors include increasing age, a family or personal history of breast conditions, not being physically active, obesity, and alcohol consumption [3]. Therefore, some measures that can be taken to lower one’s risk of breast cancer are drinking alcohol in moderation, exercising regularly (which can reduce risk of breast cancer by almost ⅓), maintaining a healthy weight, and having a healthy diet [3].


If breast cancer is detected early enough, it can be treated before it spreads to other areas of the body. Treatment for breast cancer is quite successful as can be seen by the five-year survival rates, the percent of people that live at least 5 years after the cancer is found. For patients with localized cancer that has not spread beyond the breast, the average 5- year survival rate is 99% [11]. The survival rate drops in cases where the cancer has spread. If it has spread to nearby lymph nodes, the average 5-year survival rate becomes 86%, and if it has spread to other distant parts of the body such as the lungs or the brain, the average 5-year survival rate becomes 27% [11]. Treatment usually consists of a combination of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiotherapy, with surgery being the first step of treatment and chemotherapy or radiotherapy coming next [1].


The first form of treatment is surgery. There are two main types of surgery to remove breast cancer: breast conserving surgery and mastectomy. In breast conserving surgery, the part of the breast containing the cancer is removed, leading to the removal of cancer cells as well as some of the surrounding normal cells [4]. On the other hand, mastectomy is a procedure involving the removal of the entire breast, including all of the breast tissues and sometimes other nearby tissues as well [5].


Another treatment option after surgery is chemotherapy, which can be given before surgery to shrink the tumor, or after surgery to destroy remaining cancer cells that are in the midst of spreading [6]. Chemotherapy uses drugs that are injected into the veins and travel through the bloodstream to the cancer cells. These drugs damage the DNA or RNA of the cancer cells and inhibit the cell’s ability to divide. Without the ability to divide, the cancer cells would die [7]. Radiation is another option for further treatment after surgery. During radiation, high energy rays or particles are aimed at the cancer in order to damage the DNA or RNA of the cells and, consequently, kill the cancer cell itself [8].


Every year, hundreds of thousands of people get diagnosed with breast cancer. It is important to be educated and aware of the symptoms, risk factors, treatment options, and prevention methods in order to be able to help people with breast cancer, as well as prevent yourself and others around you from this disease.


References:

  1. Breast Cancer in Women. (2019, October 28). Retrieved October 13, 2020, from https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/breast-cancer/

  2. Breast Self-Exam: How to Check for Lumps and Other Breast Changes. (2019, October 24). Retrieved October 15, 2020, from https://www.breastcancer.org/symptoms/testing/types/self_exam

  3. Breast cancer. (2019, November 22). Retrieved October 13, 2020, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/breast-cancer/symptoms-causes/syc-20352470

  4. Breast-Conserving Surgery (Lumpectomy). (n.d.). Retrieved October 15, 2020, from https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/treatment-tests-and-therapies/breast-conserving-surgery

  5. Breast Cancer Surgery. (n.d.). Retrieved October 15, 2020, from https://www.cancer.org/cancer/breast-cancer/treatment/surgery-for-breast-cancer.html

  6. Chemotherapy for Breast Cancer. (n.d.). Retrieved October 15, 2020, from https://www.cancer.org/cancer/breast-cancer/treatment/chemotherapy-for-breast-cancer.html

  7. Cancer, C. (n.d.). Cancer Cells and Chemotherapy. Retrieved October 15, 2020, from http://chemocare.com/chemotherapy/what-is-chemotherapy/cancer-cells-chemotherapy.aspx

  8. Chemotherapy for Breast Cancer. (n.d.). Retrieved October 15, 2020, from https://www.cancer.org/cancer/breast-cancer/treatment/chemotherapy-for-breast-cancer.html

  9. How Does Breast Cancer Form?: What Causes Breast Cancer? (n.d.). Retrieved October 15, 2020, from https://www.cancer.org/cancer/breast-cancer/about/how-does-breast-cancer-form.html

  10. Breast Cancer Risk Factors: Being a Woman. (2020, September 11). Retrieved October 17, 2020, from https://www.breastcancer.org/risk/factors/woman

  11. Survival Rates for Breast Cancer. (n.d.). Retrieved October 18, 2020, from https://www.cancer.org/cancer/breast-cancer/understanding-a-breast-cancer-diagnosis/breast-cancer-survival-rates.html


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