October is Breast Cancer Awareness month, and aside from wearing a pink ribbon, here are some of the things you need to know about the most common female invasive cancer in the world.
Basic overview: What do you need to know?
Developed from breast cells, breast cancer occurs when a malignant tumor forms in the breast’s lobules or from the milk ducts. The first symptom is usually a lump felt by the woman on her breasts, and while most breast lumps are non-cancerous, it’s always best to seek medical attention just to be sure. Another sign may be some sort of pain in the armpits unrelated to the monthly period of a woman, a rash around the nipples, or perhaps an unusual discharge from the breast. The breast size or shape may become irregular, and the nipples may become inverted or sunken. The skin on the area may also flake or peel.
It is still unclear to experts as to what truly causes breast cancer, but factors such as age and genetics can impact someone’s risk of developing the disease. After menopause, it becomes more and more likely for a woman to develop breast cancer. A history of breast cancer in the family, especially the presence of the inherited BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, can also contribute to a greater risk. Moreover, if a woman has had any previous breast lumps, even if these are benign, she may be at a greater risk of developing breast cancer as well. Obesity, dense breast tissue, longer estrogen exposure, and even cosmetic implants also increase that risk.
Latest developments: What’s next in breast cancer research?
Because breast cancer is no laughing matter, scientists and medical professionals continuously and tirelessly work to learn more about the disease. Recent studies indicate that due to the shifts in the breast tissue’s consistency, obesity is now a factor in promoting the growth of carcinogenic cells. According to the issue of Science Translational Medicine published in August 19, 2015 (titled “Obesity-dependent changes in interstitial ECM mechanics promote breast tumorigenesis)”, obesity stiffens the surrounding fat cells in the breasts. Called the extracellular matrix, this framework around the fat cells supports the structure and biochemistry of the cells, and when these become stiff, it increases the conditions for the growth of the cancer cells. Extra fat cells increase estrogen, which in turn can cause hormone-receptor-positive breast cancer cells to grow. This means that for women with a BMI or body mass index of 25 and above, the risk of developing breast cancer becomes greater.
Recent research also suggests that there is a 20% greater risk for taller women to develop breast cancer, according to the 54th Annual European Society for Paediatric Endocrinology Meeting in Barcelona. Perhaps insulin-like growth factors (IGFs) can affect the risk of cancer, and that taller people generally have more cells that may or may not mutate into malignant tumors.
Still, despite these less than favorable findings, there has actually been a tremendous improvement in the survival rates of breast cancer for the past 60 years. According to professor of medicine and breast medical oncology Aman Buzdar MD, “If patients are appropriately managed, they have a much better chance of surviving breast cancer today than they would have had 20, 30, or even 10 years ago, because therapies are constantly evolving and improving.” A solid example of this development would be the discovery of how progesterone can keep the growth of tumors at bay. The female hormone, when added to breast cancer treatment, can significantly increase the patient’s survival—and the widely available drug is cheap, too. Progesterone receptors have the ability to “communicate” with estrogen receptors, slowing down the stimulation of tumors.
“We’ve used cutting-edge technology to tease out the crucial role that progesterone receptors play in breast cancer – a mystery that has baffled scientists for many years,” says Dr. Jason Carroll of the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute. “Crucially, it provides a strong case for a clinical trial to investigate the potential benefit of adding progesterone to drugs that target the estrogen receptor, which could improve treatment for the majority of hormone-driven breast cancers.” Because of this development, breast cancer cells can even be prevented from spreading to other parts of the body. According to Dr. Emma Smith, senior science communication officer at Cancer Research UK, “This exciting study in cells shows how a cheap, safe and widely available drug could potentially improve treatment for around half of all breast cancer patients.”
Another new study shows that single mastectomy may prove to be more beneficial compared to a double mastectomy when it comes to treating younger patients characterized by nonhereditary breast cancer in its early stages. Double mastectomy is currently a popular choice among females because it reduces the risk of developing breast cancer in the future. However, a double mastectomy actually exposes the patient to risks of postoperative complications. Single mastectomy, on the other hand, presents a better quality of life, and it costs less, too.
Prevention: What should you do?
As with any illness, it’s always a good idea to maintain a healthy weight, exercise regularly, and watch what you eat. A well-balanced lifestyle and a good diet filled with healthy food will keep cancer cells away. As a member of the Breastcancer.org Professional Advisory Board and the director of Prevention and Control at the Siteman Cancer Center at the Washington University School of Medicine, Dr. Graham Colditz indicates the risk factors for developing breast cancer in his study.
Their research suggests that “Timing of prevention therefore matters. Because 22% of breast cancer is diagnosed in premenopausal women and is often more aggressive than cancers diagnosed in postmenopausal women, it makes sense to start prevention early in life when it can have maximum impact. For example, prevention begun in childhood and continuing through adolescence and early adult years can reduce development of premalignant or intermediate lesions that are on the pathway to breast cancer.”
What, then, should you do to get a head start on preventing breast cancer? A diet of fruits, veggies, and whole grains, as well as participating in regular exercise to maintain a healthy weight, can dramatically reduce cancer risk. “If we act and act now, shifting the balance and focus to earlier life, supported by additional resources devoted to implementing prevention, bringing messages and bolstering lifestyle and risk-reduction behaviors during the critical time points in life, we stand a good chance of significantly reducing the burden of breast cancer now and for future generations,” Dr. Colditz writes. Basically, keeping yourself fit from childhood up to adulthood is the key to being illness-free. After all, healthy is sexy—don’t you think your breasts will agree?
Cathy Dellosa Lo is a freelance writer by day and a geek by night. She constantly struggles between sniffing the novels lined up in her bookshelf and trying to whip up something unusual in the kitchen, much to the dismay of her loving husband. To this day, she still has not cooked a decent meal. She one day hopes to soar the skies as a superhero for her future children, but for now, she strongly believes in saving lives through her works in fiction. She also maintains a personal blog on her rookie misadventures as a noob wife at http://quirkylifeofthenoobwife.blogspot.com/