Cancer of any sort is terrifying, but breast cancer strikes particular fear in women of all ages across the country. While much of that fear is warranted, some is also likely from fear of the unknown. To help, we’ve put together some information to aid you in understanding the disease and navigating your own risks.
What is breast cancer?
Cancer is a disease where the usual checks and balances that keep the cells in your body growing normally are damaged, rewired or destroyed. The result is uncontrolled growth of a cell that can then invade and destroy surrounding tissues and, eventually, parts of the body both close to and remote from the original location. While the end is the same, the process can be different as can the type of cell involved. Breast cancer encompasses diseases of the many types of tissues that make up the breast, with each type and cause of uncontrolled growth having its own prognosis and mode of treatment.
How common is breast cancer?
Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women. Almost one in eight women will develop cancer that invades surrounding tissues and requires treatment over the course of their life. While that number sounds frightening, the good news is that most women diagnosed with breast cancer will survive. While diagnoses have remained steady over the last decade, death rates from cancer have fallen and survival at five years has increased. With that said, about 40,000 women will die from breast cancer this year.
Are some cancers worse than others?
The answer is yes, but the question is not always straightforward. Some cancers invade surrounding tissues aggressively and rapidly, while others are unlikely to ever cause serious illness or death. The problem is, it can be hard to know which cancer is which without getting a sample. If a mass in the breast is suspicious, your doctor will get some pictures and may get a biopsy to get a better sense of what type of cancer is present and how aggressive it is. From there, further tests can be done to determine just how serious things are.
Am I at risk?
Unfortunately, just being a woman puts you at risk. But there are a variety of other risk factors, only some of which you have control over.
• The older you are, the higher your risk. Two-thirds of invasive breast cancers are found in women over 55.
• Genetic risk.
• Overweight or obesity, especially if weight is gained after menopause.
• Lifestyle factors like physical inactivity or drinking more than one alcoholic drink per day.
• Never having had children or having children after 30.
• A previous history of breast cancer or radiation therapy to the chest.
How do genetics factor in?
Most breast cancers are not genetic, even in cases where a woman might have a relative with a history of breast cancer. In the U.S., only 5 to 10 percent of breast cancers are due to an inherited mutation. In some cases though, there is a genetic component. The BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations are the best known and dramatically increase a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer. However, these mutations are rare within the general population. Other mutations are likely contributing to breast cancer risk, but work is still under way to figure out what they are.
What should I be doing?
Unfortunately, there’s no sure way to avoid breast cancer, but there are a few things you can do to protect yourself. The first is to get a mammogram when recommended by your doctor. The current recommendation is that women start getting mammograms at age 50 if they have no risk factors indicating they need earlier screening. It should be repeated every one to two years. Younger women with risk factors should talk to their doctor about whether they need to be screened earlier. In cases where there is a strong family history, genetic testing may be warranted.
Another key is to know your body. Self-breast exams should be used to learn what’s normal for your breasts. Your doctor can teach you how to perform one correctly. By knowing the normal shape of your breasts and any lumps and bumps that might normally be present, you can pick up something new. Remember, the goal is not for you to detect cancer. In most cases, what you find won’t be cancer. The goal is just to learn what’s normal and what might not be so that your doctor can investigate further if need be.
Is treatment available?
There is no universal cure for breast cancer, but it can be treated effectively depending on the stage of the cancer when it’s discovered. This is why screening is so important. The earlier a cancer is detected, the more options are available for treatment and the more likely the cancer is to be destroyed or removed completely. Because of the variability in cancer stage and type, exact treatments are decided on and individualized with help from a doctor.