Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer among women in the United States (other than skin cancer). Each year, in the United States alone, approximately 220,000 women are told they have breast cancer. Upon hearing this unexpected and overwhelming news, a woman is faced with having to make treatment choices within a very short period of time. While curable if detected early, breast cancer is the leading cause of death for women ages 35 to 54.
Cancer is a group of more than 100 different diseases. Cancer occurs when, for unknown reasons, cells become abnormal and multiply without control or order. All parts of the body are made up of cells that normally divide to produce more cells only when the body needs them. When cancer occurs, cells keep dividing even when new cells are not needed.
There are several types of breast cancer. The most common is ductal carcinoma, which begins in the lining of the milk ducts within the breast. Another type, lobular carcinoma, begins in the lobules where breast milk is produced. If a cancerous tumor invades nearby tissue, it is called invasive cancer.
Cancer cells may spread beyond the breast to other lymph nodes, or the bones, liver or lungs. When breast cancer spreads, it is called metastatic breast cancer even though it is found in another part of the body. For example, breast cancer that has spread to the liver is called metastatic breast cancer, not liver cancer.
Doctors can not always explain why one person gets cancer and another does not. Medical researchers are, however, learning about what happens inside cells that may cause cancer. They have identified changes in certain genes within breast cells that can be linked to a higher risk for breast cancer. Genetic changes may be inherited from a parent or may accumulate throughout a person’s lifetime. Breast cancer usually begins with a single cell that transforms from normal to malignant over a period of time. Presently, however, no one can predict exactly when cancer will occur or how it will progress.
Every woman has some chance of developing breast cancer during her lifetime. As women get older, those chances increase. Overall, a woman’s chance of being diagnosed with breast cancer is 1 out of 8. Even though breast cancer is more common in older women, it also occurs in younger women and even in a small number of men (1,300 cases per year in the U.S.).
While there is yet no preventive to stop breast cancer, early detection is vital to surviving the disease. There are three things women can, and should do. Get an annual mammogram (special X-ray screening) after the age of 50; regular (yearly) breast examination by a doctor; and breast self-examination (BSE) at least once a month.
If breast cancer is detected, it is important to remember there is no single treatment that is “right” for all women. As with most medical conditions, there is no “one-size-fits-all” treatment or cure. And all breast cancers are not alike. Breast cancer is a complex disease. Once breast cancer has been found, more tests will be done to find the specific pattern of your particular cancer. This is an important step called staging.
Knowing the exact stage of your disease will help your doctor plan your course of treatment. Your doctor will want to know: the size of the tumor; if the cancer has spread within your breast; if cancer is present in your underarm lymph nodes; if cancer is present in other parts of your body.
There are many options available and you can always ask more than one doctor about your diagnosis and treatment plan. Your best start is to gain as much knowledge about the disease and the treatments as possible. Find answers to your questions and gain assistance in your fight against a terrifying enemy. Remember, there are no “dumb” questions when you are faced with cancer.
Most women who are treated for early breast cancer go on to live healthy, active, productive lives. The best chance of survival is early detection, so plan for mammograms, have yearly visits with your doctor, and use self-examination frequently. Best wishes for years of good health!