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 Breast Cancer Second Leading Cause of Cancer Death Among American Women

 

Breast cancer happens when cells in the breast begin to grow out of control and can then invade nearby tissues or spread throughout the body. Large collections of this out of control tissue are called tumors. However, some tumors are not really cancer because they cannot spread or threaten someone's life. These are called benign tumors. The tumors that can spread throughout the body or invade nearby tissues are considered cancer and are called malignant tumors. Theoretically, any of the types of tissue in the breast can form a cancer, but usually it comes from either the ducts or the glands. Because it may take months to years for a tumor to get large enough to feel in the breast, doctors screen for tumors with mammograms, which can sometimes see disease before it can be felt.

 

Breast cancer is the most common malignancy affecting women in North America and Europe. Every woman is at risk for breast cancer. Close to 200,000 cases of breast cancer were diagnosed in the United States in 2001. Breast cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in American women behind lung cancer. The lifetime risk of any particular woman getting breast cancer is about one in eight, although the lifetime risk of dying from breast cancer is much lower at one in 28.

Risk factors for breast cancer can be divided into those that you cannot change and those that you can change. Some factors that increase your risk of breast cancer that you cannot alter include being a woman, getting older, having a family history (having a mother, sister, or daughter with breast cancer doubles your risk), having a previous history of breast cancer, having had radiation therapy to the chest region, being Caucasian, getting your periods young (before 12 years old), having your menopause late (after 50 years old), never having children or having them when you are older than 30, and having a genetic mutation that increases your risk. Genetic mutations for breast cancer have become a hot topic of research lately. Three percent to 10 percent of breast cancers may be related to changes in either the gene BRCA1 or the gene BRCA2. Women can inherit these mutations from their parents and it may be worth testing for either mutation if a woman has a particularly strong family history of breast cancer (meaning multiple relatives affected, especially if they are under 50 years old when they get the disease). If a woman is found to carry either mutation, she has a 50 percent chance of getting breast cancer before she is 70. Family members may elect to get tested to see if they carry the mutation as well. If a woman does have the mutation, she can get more rigorous screening or even undergo preventive (prophylactic) mastectomies to decrease her chances of contracting cancer. The decision to get tested is a highly personal one that should be discussed with a doctor who is trained in counseling patients about genetic testing.

Certain factors which increase a woman's risk of breast cancer can be altered including taking hormone replacement therapy (long term use of estrogens with progesterone for menopause symptoms slightly increases your risk), taking birth control pills (a very slight increased risk that disappears in women who have stopped them for over 10 years), not breastfeeding, drinking two to five alcoholic drinks a day, being overweight (especially after menopause), and not exercising. All of these modifiable risk factors are not nearly as important as gender, age, and family history, but they are things that a woman can control that may reduce her chances of developing a breast malignancy. Remember that all risk factors are based on probabilities, and even someone without any risk factors can still get breast cancer. Proper screening and early detection are the best weapons in reducing the mortality associated with this disease.

 

Unfortunately, the early stages of breast cancer may not have any symptoms. This is why it is important to follow screening recommendations. As a tumor grows in size, it can produce a variety of symptoms including:

• lump or thickening in the breast or underarm

• change in size or shape of the breast

• nipple discharge or nipple turning inward

• redness or scaling of the skin or nipple

• ridges or pitting of the breast skin

If you experience these symptoms, it doesn't necessarily mean you have breast cancer, but you need to be examined by a doctor.

 

Source: Christopher Dolinsky, MD, Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania.

 

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