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Breast Cancer: Every Woman's Nightmare 
 
by Valencia P. Higuera August 25, 2005

This article will provide a brief overview of breast cancer.

Breast cancer is one of the most feared illnesses among women. This fear is valid considering that breast cancer ranks second in deaths caused by cancer. Fortunately within the last 30 years, many women, physicians, and organizations have increased breast cancer awareness. They provide an abundance of information in the form of pamphlets and radio spots. The purpose of information is to encourage women to regularly examine their breast for abnormalities. Self-examinations should be done monthly. In addition, women over the age of 30 should make a habit of having yearly mammograms, which are designed to detect cancerous cells in the breast.

What is Breast Cancer?

Within the United States, breast cancer is the most common cancer in women. It is estimated that over 100,000 women are diagnosed annually with breast cancer. This number does not include the millions of women who are diagnosed during previous years. Although breast cancer is primarily a woman's disease, men may also develop the illness. Male breast cancer is rare; however there are nearly 1,000 new cases each year. Breast cancer occurs when abnormal cells begin to develop in the breast. Ordinarily, our bodies contain healthy cells which are intended to protect us from infections, viruses, and so forth. Occasionally, healthy cells divide to form new healthy cell. In rare instances, the cells divide unnecessarily. An overgrowth of healthy cells and abnormal cells will result in a tumor, or lump on the breast. When a lump is caused by an overgrowth of cells, the tumor is benign (non-cancerous). However, when a lump is the result of the development of abnormal cells, the tumor is malignant (cancerous).

Benign tumors are non-life threatening and will not pose a health threat. In most cases, physicians recommend removing the tumor. Rarely does a benign tumor return. Still, the patient will likely undergo close monitoring to ensure that additional tumors do not develop.

Malignant tumors are life-threatening, and require immediate treatment. Cancerous tumors that are left untreated may spread to the surround tissues and organs. Cancer cells that spread to the lymph nodes and bloodstream are allowed to travel throughout the body. The more widespread the cancer, the more difficult it is to cure. Breast cancer may spread to any part of the body including the liver, lungs, bones, and brain. Malignant tumors may progress rapidly, thus regular exams are vital.

Stages of Breast Cancer

Stage I: Early stage of breast cancer in which the tumor is less than 1 inch. The cancer is found in only one breast and has not spread to surrounding tissues and organs

Stage II: Early stage of breast cancer in which the tumor is less than 1 inch, but has spread to nearby lymph node located under the armpit, or the tumor is 1 to 2 inches and has not spread to lymph nodes.

Stage III: Advanced stage of breast cancer in which the tumor is larger than 2 inches and has spread to the lymph nodes. In stage 3, the cancer may have spread to surrounding tissues located near the breast

Stage IV: Advanced stage of breast cancer in which cancerous cells spread to other organs such as the bones, lungs, liver, and brain.

Risk Factors

Breast cancer may occur in any woman regardless of age or nationality. Mistakenly, many women believe that breast cancer is caused by a gene. They reason that if no other woman in their family has breast cancer, they are immune to the illness. However, several women without a family history of breast cancer, or any other form of cancer, develop the illness. Similar to other illnesses, cancer is random and can affect anyone at anytime during their life. Nonetheless, there are factors that may increase a woman's chance of developing breast cancer. These include:

  • Person history of breast cancer (women treated for breast cancer may have a recurrence of the illness, or cancer may spread to the other breast)
  • Family history of breast cancer, or any other type of cancer
  • Altered gene (some women contain a hereditary defected gene that increases the odds of developing breast cancer)

Other factors that place a woman at risk of developing breast cancer is being over the age of 50. Breast cancer rarely occurs in women under the age of 35 – but it is possible. On average, women who are diagnosed at an early age have a strong family history of breast cancer. This consists of having several close family members diagnosed with breast cancer, perhaps a mother or sibling. Researchers have concluded that long-term exposure to estrogen may cause a variety of cancers. Thus, women who begin early menstruation are also at great risk. Having children later in life is another risk factor. Late childbearing consists of having one's first child pass the age of 30. Lastly, women who abuse alcohol have a higher risk of breast cancer.

Symptoms of Breast Cancer

Unlike other cancers that have several tell-tale signs, breast cancer has few symptoms. The most common sign of breast cancer is a lump or hard area anywhere on the breast. Some women also experience a change in breast size or nipple discharge. Women who detect a lump, regardless of size, should see a doctor. In many cases, mysterious lumps are caused by cyst or benign tumors. Still, breast cancer is a serious illness. The worst thing a woman can do is ignore any sign of breast cancer.

Diagnosis and Treatment Options

Ultrasounds are very effective for diagnosing breast cancer. When an abnormality is detected, these machines allow doctors to examine lumps in order to determine whether it contains a mass or filled with fluid. If the lump contains fluid, it is not cancerous. If the lump is solid, the patient will need to undergo further testing. A biopsy is necessary for determining if a lump is cancerous. During a biopsy, a tissue sample from the lump is removed with a needle, and examined by a pathologist. After examining the lump, a pathologist is able to conclude whether the mass is benign or malignant. Benign lumps are generally surgically removed without further treatment. If cancerous cells are present, the patient must begin immediate treatment.

Surgery is the most common treatment for breast cancer. Prior to surgery, oncologist must determine the stage of cancer. This information will greatly affect the recommended treatment. In the early stages, the patient may undergo a lumpectomy to remove the cancerous tumor. Lymph nodes under the arm may also be removed. In cases of advanced breast cancer, the patient will likely undergo a mastectomy. This surgery is intended to remove the entire breast. Post-surgery, patients may receive radiation therapy (high energy rays to shrink tumors and kill cancer cells), and chemotherapy (drug intended to kill cancer cell) to kill any remaining cancer cells, and prevent the development of new ones.


 




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