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Breast health: Awareness, detection & treatment guide

09 Aug, 2023

Blog author iconHealthtrip Team

Breast cancer remains a global concern, with statistics from the World Health Organization indicating that it's the most common cancer among women worldwide, accounting for 25% of all cases. In 2020 alone, it was estimated that 2.3 million women were diagnosed with breast cancer, and 685,000 succumbed to the disease. Furthermore, 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime. These numbers underscore the critical importance of early detection, awareness, and informed decision-making in the realm of breast health. As we delve deeper into this topic, it's essential to remember that behind every statistic is a story, a family, and a community impacted.

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What is breast cancer?

Breast cancer is a pathological condition characterized by the uncontrolled proliferation of malignant cells within the breast tissue. These cells, if left unchecked, can form a mass known as a tumor. If these malignant cells gain the ability to invade surrounding tissues or metastasize to distant sites, the disease can progress, making treatment more challenging.

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Early identification of these malignant changes, often before they manifest as palpable lumps or other symptoms, can significantly improve prognosis and reduce the invasiveness of potential treatments.

The adage "knowledge is power" holds particularly true for breast cancer. Being cognizant of one's own body, understanding the risk factors, and adhering to recommended screening guidelines can be pivotal in early detection. When identified in its nascent stages, breast cancer treatments can be less aggressive, and the likelihood of a full recovery is markedly increased.

Basic understanding of the breast structure: The breast, a highly specialized organ, is primarily composed of adipose (fat) tissue, glandular tissue that produces milk (lobules), and ductal structures that transport milk to the nipple. Interspersed within this matrix are a network of blood vessels, lymphatic channels, and connective tissues that provide structural integrity.

A nuanced understanding of its anatomy can provide insights into how and where pathological changes might arise.

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How do normal breast cells work ?

Under the meticulous regulation of genetic and hormonal factors, breast cells undergo a harmonious cycle of growth, differentiation, and apoptosis (programmed cell death). This equilibrium ensures the breast's functionality, especially during periods of increased demand like lactation. However, when genetic mutations disrupt this balance, cells may begin to proliferate uncontrollably, setting the stage for potential malignancy.

Types of breast cancer

1. Ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS):

DCIS is a non-invasive or pre-invasive breast cancer. Here, the cancer cells are confined to the ducts of the breast and have not invaded the surrounding breast tissue. While DCIS isn't life-threatening in its initial stages, it requires treatment to prevent progression into invasive cancer. Regular mammography is instrumental in detecting DCIS early. Early intervention can prevent its progression to a more aggressive form.

2. Invasive ductal carcinoma (IDC):

IDC, the most common subtype of breast cancer, originates in the milk ducts but has invaded the surrounding tissues. From here, it has the potential to metastasize to other parts of the body through the blood and lymphatic systems. Treatment strategies for IDC often involve a combination of surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, and hormone therapies, depending on the stage and characteristics of the tumor.

3. Invasive lobular carcinoma (ILC):

ILC starts in the milk-producing lobules and invades the surrounding tissues. It accounts for about 10% of invasive breast cancers. Its presentation can be more diffuse and harder to detect on mammograms compared to IDC, making clinical examination and additional imaging modalities crucial. Recognizing these can influence diagnostic and therapeutic decisions.

4. Triple-negative breast cancer:

This type of breast cancer lacks three primary receptors: estrogen, progesterone, and HER2/neu. Consequently, hormone therapies and drugs targeting HER2 are ineffective against it. Triple-negative breast cancer can be more aggressive and has fewer targeted treatments, making chemotherapy a primary treatment option.

5. HER2-positive breast cancer:

HER2-positive breast cancers have an overexpression of the HER2/neu receptor. This overexpression can promote the rapid growth of cancer cells. Fortunately, targeted therapies like trastuzumab (Herceptin) have been developed to target this specific receptor, offering a more personalized treatment approach. Targeted therapies have significantly improved outcomes for patients with this subtype. Other rare types: Breast cancer is a heterogeneous disease with several rare subtypes, including inflammatory breast cancer, Paget's disease of the nipple, and phyllodes tumors, among others. Each of these has distinct clinical presentations, pathological features, and treatment considerations. It's imperative for clinicians and patients to be informed about these rarer entities to ensure optimal care.

Risk Factors for breast cancer

1. Genetic:

BRCA1, BRCA2 mutations: Certain inherited gene mutations, notably BRCA1 and BRCA2, significantly elevate the risk of breast and ovarian cancer. Individuals with these mutations have a lifetime risk of breast cancer that is more pronounced than the general population. Genetic counseling and testing can provide invaluable insights for those with a family history suggestive of these mutations

Early identification and surveillance can be pivotal in managing this risk.

2. Family history:

A family history of breast cancer, especially in a first-degree relative (mother, sister, or daughter), can double an individual's risk. The risk further escalates with multiple affected relatives. However, it's worth noting that the majority of breast cancers are sporadic, meaning they occur without a clear family history.

3. Age:

Simply put, the risk of breast cancer increases with age. The majority of breast cancers are diagnosed in women over 50. However, this doesn't negate the importance of vigilance in younger women, especially if other risk factors are present.

4. Hormone replacement therapy (HRT):

Postmenopausal women who use combined estrogen and progesterone therapy are at a slightly increased risk of breast cancer. It's essential to weigh the benefits of HRT against potential risks, and discussions with a healthcare provider are crucial in this decision-making process.

Personal history of breast cancer or certain non-cancerous breast diseases:

A previous breast cancer diagnosis can increase the risk of developing a new cancer in the other breast or a different part of the same breast. Additionally, certain benign breast conditions, such as atypical hyperplasia, can elevate the risk.

While many don't significantly alter cancer risk, some can serve as markers for heightened surveillance.

5. Radiation exposure:

Exposure to radiation, especially during youth, can elevate breast cancer risk. This includes radiation treatments for other cancers, like Hodgkin's lymphoma. It's vital to share any history of radiation exposure with your healthcare provider.

6. Menstrual history:

Women who started menstruating before age 12 or experienced menopause after age 55 have a slightly increased risk of breast cancer. This is likely due to a longer lifetime exposure to estrogen and progesterone.

7. Other factors:

Numerous other factors can influence breast cancer risk, including but not limited to, childbirth history, alcohol consumption, breast density, and certain environmental exposures. It's imperative to have open discussions with healthcare providers about all potential risk factors to ensure comprehensive risk assessment and management.

Symptoms & detection of breast cancer

1. Changes in breast size or shape:

Any noticeable asymmetry or alteration in the contour of the breast should prompt further evaluation. While some fluctuations can be attributed to hormonal changes, persistent or pronounced changes warrant a clinical assessment.

Regular self-awareness can be the first step in early detection.

2. Unusual lumps or swelling:

The presence of a new lump or swelling, whether painless or tender, is a common symptom prompting evaluation. Not all lumps are malignant; many can be benign cysts or fibroadenomas. However, any new or changing lump should be assessed by a healthcare professional.

3. Skin changes (dimpling, redness):

Dimpling, often likened to the texture of an orange peel (peau d'orange), or unexplained redness can be indicative of underlying pathology. Inflammatory breast cancer, a rare but aggressive subtype, can present with such skin changes.

4. Nipple discharge:

While nipple discharge can be benign, especially if related to pregnancy or breastfeeding, any unexpected discharge, particularly if bloody or clear, should be evaluated. It can be a sign of an underlying condition, including cancer.

5. Pain:

Breast pain is common and often linked to hormonal fluctuations. However, persistent, localized pain or pain associated with other symptoms can be concerning and should be discussed with a physician.

6. Mammograms:

Importance and frequency: Mammography remains a cornerstone in breast cancer detection. It can identify tumors that are too small to be felt and can detect cancers before symptoms develop. The frequency of mammograms varies based on age, risk factors, and prevailing guidelines. Typically, annual mammograms are recommended starting at age 40 or 50, but this can vary.

7. Self-exams:

How to and how often: Breast self-exams involve regularly checking the breasts for lumps, visual changes, or any other abnormalities. While they are no longer universally recommended as a screening tool, being familiar with one's own body can lead to earlier detection of changes. If you choose to do self-exams, they should ideally be performed monthly, preferably at the same point in the menstrual cycle.

Diagnosis & staging of breast cancer

1. Biopsy:

A biopsy remains the gold standard for diagnosing breast cancer. If an abnormality is detected through physical examination or imaging, a small sample of the breast tissue is extracted for microscopic examination. This procedure can confirm the presence of cancer cells and provide insights into the type and grade of the cancer.

It not only confirms malignancy but also provides invaluable data for tailoring treatment strategies.

2. MRI, Ultrasound, and other imaging tests:

While mammography is a primary tool for breast cancer screening, other imaging modalities play crucial roles in diagnosis and management:

  • MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging): Especially useful for women with a high risk of breast cancer, MRI can detect tumors that might be missed by mammography. It's often used for women with dense breast tissue or those with BRCA mutations.
  • Ultrasound: This tool is adept at distinguishing between solid tumors and fluid-filled cysts. It's often the next step if a suspicious lump is found during a physical exam or mammogram.

Each method offers unique insights, and their combined use can provide a comprehensive view of breast health.

3. Staging:

Staging is a systematic approach to categorizing the size of the tumor and the extent of its spread. It's pivotal in guiding treatment decisions and prognostication. The stages of breast cancer range from 0 (in situ) to IV (metastatic). This classification is based on:

  • Tumor size (T): How large is the primary tumor?
  • Nodes (N): Has the cancer spread to nearby lymph nodes? If so, how many?
  • Metastasis (M): Has the cancer spread to distant parts of the body?

Treatment options for breast cancer

1. Surgery:

Surgical intervention remains a cornerstone in the management of breast cancer.

  • Lumpectomy: Also known as breast-conserving surgery, this procedure involves removing only the tumor and a small margin of surrounding healthy tissue. It aims to conserve as much of the breast as possible.
  • Mastectomy: This procedure involves removing the entire breast. There are various types of mastectomy, including total (or simple) mastectomy, double mastectomy, and radical mastectomy, each with its indications.

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The choice often hinges on the size, location, and stage of the tumor, as well as patient preference.

2. Radiation therapy:

Radiation therapy uses high-energy rays to target and kill cancer cells. It's often employed after lumpectomy and sometimes after mastectomy to eliminate any remaining cancer cells and reduce the risk of recurrence.

3. Chemotherapy:

Chemotherapy involves the use of drugs to kill cancer cells or stop them from growing. It can be administered before surgery (neoadjuvant) to shrink tumors or after surgery (adjuvant) to kill any remaining cancer cells. The specific drugs and regimen duration depend on the cancer type and stage.

4. Hormone therapy:

Some breast cancers are driven by hormones, specifically estrogen and progesterone. Hormone therapies, like tamoxifen or aromatase inhibitors, block these hormones or reduce their levels, thereby inhibiting cancer growth.

Determining if a cancer is hormone-receptor-positive is pivotal in tailoring therapy.

5. Targeted therapy:

Targeted therapies are drugs designed to target specific molecules involved in cancer growth and spread. For instance, trastuzumab (Herceptin) targets the HER2 protein, which is overexpressed in some breast cancers.

6. Immunotherapy:

Immunotherapy harnesses the body's immune system to recognize and destroy cancer cells. While its role in breast cancer is still evolving, certain drugs, like checkpoint inhibitors, have shown promise in treating advanced breast cancers.

7. Combination therapies:

Often, a multi-pronged approach is most effective. Combination therapies utilize a mix of the aforementioned treatments, tailored to the patient's specific cancer type, stage, and overall health.

The future of breast cancer treatment is moving towards even more individualized approaches, ensuring each patient receives the most effective and least toxic treatment.

Prevention & lifestyle in relation to breast cancer

1. Regular screenings:

Early detection is paramount in improving breast cancer outcomes. Regular screenings, including mammograms, can identify abnormalities even before symptoms manifest. Adhering to recommended screening guidelines based on age and risk factors ensures timely interventions if abnormalities arise.

Consistency in screenings can be a life-saving decision.

2. Diet and nutrition:

A balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins can play a role in breast cancer prevention. Antioxidants and other nutrients found in a diverse diet can bolster overall health and potentially reduce cancer risk.

Foods rich in fiber, omega-3 fatty acids, and certain vitamins may offer added benefits.

3. Physical activity:

Regular exercise has been linked to a reduced risk of several cancers, including breast cancer. It aids in maintaining a healthy weight, improving immune function, and regulating hormone levels—all factors that can influence breast cancer risk.

Beyond cancer prevention, exercise can enhance cardiovascular health, mental well-being, and overall longevity.

4. Limiting alcohol and tobacco use:

Moderation is key. Excessive alcohol consumption has been associated with an increased risk of breast cancer. Limiting intake to one drink per day for women is often recommended. Similarly, tobacco, both active smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke, can elevate breast cancer risk, especially in premenopausal women.

Reducing alcohol and eliminating tobacco not only lowers breast cancer risk but also benefits overall health.

5. Hormone therapy considerations:

While hormone replacement therapy (HRT) can alleviate menopausal symptoms, it's essential to be aware of its potential risks. Prolonged use of combined estrogen and progesterone HRT has been linked to an increased risk of breast cancer. It's crucial to discuss the benefits and risks with a healthcare provider to make an informed decision.

Individualized assessment, considering personal and family history, can guide the optimal approach to hormone therapy.

Breast cancer, like many medical conditions, underscores the profound importance of self-advocacy. Being proactive, asking questions, and seeking clarity are not just rights but responsibilities each individual holds in the journey of their health. In an era where medical advancements are progressing at an unprecedented rate, staying informed is both empowering and protective. Knowledge equips individuals to make decisions that align with their unique circumstances and values.

Recognizing even subtle changes in one's body can be the first step in early detection, often making a significant difference in outcomes. Regular check-ups with healthcare professionals complement this self-awareness, ensuring that expert eyes corroborate one's observations.

In closing,

The journey through breast health, be it prevention, diagnosis, or treatment, is deeply personal. Yet, some universals remain—knowledge is power, vigilance is a virtue, and one's health is an invaluable treasure. Let this be an encouragement to prioritize regular check-ups, cultivate self-awareness, and champion one's health with informed choice

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Early signs can include a lump in the breast, change in breast shape, dimpling of the skin, or nipple discharge