Overview & Facts

Breast cancer is the result of one or more tumors developing in the breast cells. The tumors form from malignant cancer cells that invade the breast tissue. These cancerous cells can spread throughout the rest of the body depending on the severity of the disease. Breast cancer strikes both men and women, but it is more common in females. Various types of cancer can afflict the breasts, and there are several stages of the disease.

The Anatomy of a Normal Breast

The components of the breasts are located directly underneath the skin. Each breast has a milk-producing system made up of lobes, ducts and glands. Approximately 15 lobes encircle the nipple, and inside each lobe is a smaller version called a lobule. The lobules are comprised of small sacs where milk is produced. Tiny tubes, or ducts, connected to the lobules transport the milk to the nipple.

The chest muscles are located underneath the breasts, and fatty tissue surrounding the breasts provides support between the ducts and lobes. Each breast contains blood vessels and lymph-carrying vessels as well. Lymph is a fluid that passes through the body via the lymphatic system. It essentially transports cells that assist with fighting infection. These lymph vessels extend to the lymph nodes.

Lymph nodes are located in various parts of the body including in the armpits and chest. Once cancer affects the lymph nodes, it is possible for other parts of the body to become afflicted. Cancer cells spread rapidly through the lymphatic system. Because the lymph vessels lead to the breasts, cancer in the lymph nodes often travels directly to breast tissue.

Breasts Affected by Cancer

Breast cancer typically begins in the milk ducts or glands of the breast. Small lumps or calcium deposits may form in the breast and the surrounding tissues. Breast cancer is the result of the individual's cells multiplying and traveling to parts of the body where the overproduced cells are not needed. If malignant cells travel from the breasts to other parts of the body, the patient is still treated for breast cancer.

Cancer that has spread to other areas such as the bones, lungs or other organs is called metastatic cancer. When the cancer advances, it can be difficult to treat. However, many therapies are successful at controlling the disease for a significant period of time. Each type of breast cancer spreads at a different pace, and tumors may grow more quickly with some forms of the disease.

Certain tumors formed in the breast are benign, which means they aren't cancerous. It is possible, however, for benign lumps to become malignant. Receiving proper screening and biopsy testing from an experienced physician is the best way to determine if a lump is cancerous or benign. When a malignant tumor is discovered promptly, the patient's chance of survival increases substantially.

Causes of Breast Cancer

The exact causes of this disease are still being studied, but experts have pinpointed various risk factors associated with cancer. One of the most notable risk factors is family history. If an individual has family members who have been affected by the disease, the chances of developing it increase significantly. Additionally, a person who has previously had ovarian, colon, endometrial or breast cancer is at greater risk of developing malignant tumors in the breast.

Another influential factor is the progression of age. Women over the age of 50 are at considerable risk particularly if the woman is postmenopausal. Radiation therapy given in high doses may also cause breast cancer. There are studies examining the connection between diet and breast cancer as well. Individuals who consume an excessive amount of fat may be more at risk than those who follow healthier diets.

Certain genes may also be connected to the development of breast cancer. Approximately one out of every 200 women is a carrier of the BRCA genes. A woman carrying these genes is essentially prone to getting breast cancer, but there is no guarantee cancer will form. Having this genetic predisposition may require some preemptive breast screening on the carrier's part.

The Link Between Hormones and Breast Cancer

Research shows that a female's exposure to estrogen, the female hormone, may put her at high risk for breast cancer. Estrogen instructs the cells of the body to divide, and dividing cells have the potential to spiral out of control. Once cells begin dividing, the chance of them becoming abnormal or cancerous increases. Any woman whose estrogen levels repeatedly rise is at risk.

The use of birth control pills may also affect breast cancer development. Some hormones in these pills may be responsible for producing cancerous cells. However, there are still studies claiming birth control pills do not have any affect on the body's cells. Women who undergo hormone replacement therapy that combines estrogen with progesterone may be more likely to develop breast cancer.

Other factors that increase the risk of getting breast cancer include obesity and an abnormal menstrual cycle. Estrogen levels are affected by substantial weight gain, which puts the individual at risk for excessive cell division. Additionally, a woman may be more in jeopardy if she begins menstruating before the age of 12 or if her cycles end after the age of 55.

The Stages of Breast Cancer

The earliest stage of breast cancer is defined as a localization of the disease. This means the cancer hasn't attacked the lymph nodes or any other area. Stage 1 breast cancer is when the tumor takes up less than two centimeters and hasn't dispersed anywhere else. In stage 2A breast cancer, the tumor may be less than two centimeters with some affect on the lymph nodes, or it may be greater than two centimeters with no lymph node connection.

Stage 2B is the growth of the tumor to beyond five centimeters with no affect on the lymph nodes. The tumor may also be between two and five centimeters with spreading to the lymph nodes. In stage 3A breast cancer, the tumor is larger than five centimeters, and cancer has spread to the armpit lymph nodes. Stage 3B and 3C involves the spreading of cancer to various areas surrounding the breast. Finally, a stage 4 situation is a tumor that has spread to distant areas of the body.

The Importance of Proper Screening

If it is discovered in the early stages, breast cancer is treatable. Early screening will detect cancer before any symptoms are displayed. For women over the age of 40, screening may consist of a yearly mammogram. Those who are younger than 40 should perform monthly self exams and receive regular assessments by their healthcare providers. This means any unusual changes can be detected before the situation becomes critical.

Early detection increases the chance of survival particularly with localized tumors. A cancerous tumor that is discovered before it spreads throughout the body generally can be treated successfully. If the cancer is detected before symptoms are experienced, the chances of it spreading are minimal. The tumors found during early screening are also typically smaller than those found after symptoms are reported. Many physicians believe that proper screening not only reduces the affects of cancer, it can save lives.

Risk Factors

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