Breast cancer is a malignant tumor arising from the cells of the breast. It is a condition that affects women more than men.
According to the National Cancer Institute and the American Cancer Society in 2018, there have been over 265,000 new cases of breast cancer each year in women, and approximately 40,000 women die.
There is no specific age for breast cancer, but chances of breast cancer increases as one gets older. There is also a greater risk of breast cancer among women who have relatives with the same disease. Having a breast cancer diagnosis in one breast increases the risk of cancer in the other breast. Women who are diagnosed with a benign breast condition are also at a greater risk of breast cancer.
It is crucial to get an annual mammogram done from age 40. This particular process helps in detecting cancer at a very early stage before it gets worse.
Once breast cancer gets to an advanced stage, the symptoms become more evident. There are 11 most common signs of breast cancer that every woman should know about:
- Lump – The most common sign of breast cancer is a painless lump felt inside the breast. This lump can be hard or soft, movable or fixed. If you feel anything unusual in the breast it must get checked as soon as possible. Even if the lump is proven to be a cyst or fibroadenoma it still needs to be checked annually as its nature may change later and become cancerous.
- Pain and tenderness – For women with inflammatory breast cancer, pain, and tenderness in the area can often be one of the early signs of breast cancer. However, if you are feeling achy in the chest, chances are that you are wearing the wrong bra size.
- Prominent veins – Another very common sign of breast cancer is when veins visually stick out on the surface of the breast. The cancerous lump or mass can block the free flow of blood, causing the veins to become engorged.
- Nipple discharge – If a woman is suffering from breast cancer, they experience bloody discharge from the nipple. Regardless of whether the discharge is bloody or not, any kind of discharge must be checked by a doctor as it can be an early sign of breast cancer.
- Redness – If one finds big red patches on the breast it can be an alarming sign of inflammatory breast cancer. If the redness does not go away it is important to get a skin biopsy done to rule out cancer.
- Dimpling of the skin – Another most common skin changes from cancer is an orange peel appearance on the skin. This happens when the cancer is pulling at the skin.
- Small pink bumps – Sometimes there are red spots, called papules that get visible on the breast which are often a sign of a noncancerous condition, but can also be an early sign of breast cancer.
- An inverted nipple – Sometimes, the tumor almost tethers to the duct behind the nipple or your skin, causing it to retract and pull in. If there have been any inversions of the nipple or skin, it is crucial to get it checked out, as this could be an early sign of breast cancer.
- Swollen lymph nodes – One of the most obvious signs of breast cancer is swollen lymph nodes. If these lymph nodes seem persistent then it must definitely get checked since it can be a sign of cancer getting spread. Swollen nodes under your armpits, in particular, are signs of breast cancer specifically.
- Sudden asymmetry or changes in size – Changes in the way your breasts look can be a leading symptom of breast cancer, particularly swelling or shrinking, and asymmetry from one side to the other.
- Prolonged abnormalities – Most non-cancerous problems are better after two weeks, but if cancer has spread then it can manifest as headaches, seizures, pain in your bones, shortness of breath, difficulty in breathing, and even fatigue. Especially, when a woman has had a history of breast cancer, it is necessary to go see a doctor.
There are cases when women realize their breast cancer at a later stage. In such situations, some treatments are there that can destroy the disease within the breast and nearby tissues, such as lymph nodes. Breast cancer treatments include:
- Surgery/mastectomy – Often surgeries are performed to remove the cancerous lump from the breast. Mastectomy is one such surgery that removes the whole breast. Lumpectomy or breast-conserving surgery is another type of surgery that removes just the tumor and tissues around it. But lumpectomy is not always an option for everyone with breast cancer, and others prefer to undergo a mastectomy. There are newer mastectomy techniques that have come up which can preserve breast skin and allow for a more natural breast appearance following the procedure.
- Radiation therapy – Radiation therapy is another type of therapy that uses high-energy waves to kill cancer cells.
- Chemotherapy – Chemotherapy is a type of therapy that uses drugs to kill cancer cells. As these powerful medicines fight the disease, they also can cause side effects like nausea, hair loss, early menopause, hot flashes, and fatigue.
- Hormone therapy – Hormone therapy uses drugs that help in preventing hormones like estrogen, from fueling the growth of breast cancer cells. Medicines like tamoxifen are given to women before and after menopause and anastrozole and letrozole to postmenopausal women. This form of therapy stops the ovaries from making hormones.
- Targeted therapy – This type of therapy prompts the body’s immune system to destroy cancer. They target breast cancer cells and destroy them. Abemaciclib can be used alone in women who have already been treated with hormone therapy and chemotherapy.
A patient might get chemotherapy, hormone therapy, or targeted therapy along with surgery or radiation. They can kill any cancer cells that were left behind by other treatments.