Everything You Need to Know About Breast Cancer

In the United States, each October is designated as Breast Cancer Awareness Month. This month serves as a time to raise awareness about breast cancer and the risks it poses. Breast Cancer Awareness Month also helps to educate people about the signs, symptoms, and prevention of the disease. Additionally, it acts as a reminder for individuals to get checked annually to ensure that they are safe and healthy, or to catch any forms of breast cancer early on.

While Breast Cancer Awareness Month is incredibly important, it’s always a good idea to stay informed so you can stay as healthy as possible. This article will cover everything you need to know about breast cancer.

What Is Breast Cancer?

Breast cancer is a disease that causes the cells in the breast to grow out of control. The growth of these cells can then negatively impact their normal bodily functions and lead to health issues. There are different types of breast cancer, and the type that develops depends on which cells in the breast turn into cancer.

The three main parts of the breast are the lobules, ducts, and connective tissue. The lobules are glands that produce milk, the ducts are tubes that carry milk to the nipple, and the connective tissue surrounds everything and holds it together.

The two most common types of breast cancer are:

  • Invasive ductal carcinoma – This type of breast cancer develops in the ducts and the cancerous cells then grow into other parts of the breast tissue. These invasive cancer cells can also spread to other parts of the body, and when they do they are said to have metastasized.
  • Invasive lobular carcinoma – This type of breast cancer develops in the lobules of the breast and then the cancerous cells spread into the nearby breast tissues. These cells can also spread to other parts of the body.

There are other types of breast cancer that are less common, including inflammatory breast cancer, Paget’s disease, mucinous, and medullary.

How Common Is Breast Cancer?

Breast cancer is the second most common type of cancer diagnosed in women in the United States, with skin cancer being the most common. Each year, there are over 280,000 new cases of breast cancer in the U.S., which accounts for 15% of all new cancers. It’s estimated that over 3.7 million women are living with breast cancer, and around 13% of all U.S. women will be diagnosed with breast cancer at some point in their lives. However, there is a 90% 5-year relative breast cancer survival rate. While breast cancer primarily affects women, there are also nearly 3,000 cases a year in men.

The Signs and Symptoms of Breast Cancer

The signs and symptoms of breast cancer can differ depending on the specific type of breast cancer and are not always the same for everyone. However, it’s always good to stay informed and pay attention to any changes in your body. Some of the most common signs and symptoms of breast cancer include:

  • New lumps in your breast or armpit
  • Irritation of your breast skin
  • Dimpling of your breast skin
  • Thickening or swelling of any part of your breast
  • Pain in the nipple area
  • Nipple discharge other than breast milk, including blood
  • Pulling in of the nipple
  • Changes in the size or shape of your breast
  • Pain in any part of your breast

These signs and symptoms do not necessarily mean that you have breast cancer, but they are common indicators. If you notice any of these changes, you should schedule an appointment with your healthcare provider as soon as possible.

What Are the Stages of Breast Cancer?

As with other types of cancer, there are various stages of breast cancer. However, the labeling system for breast cancer is a little more complex than that. While there are different stages, there are also different grades and letters used to communicate information about your particular cancer.

First, there are stages that range from 0 to IV. 0 is the least severe stage of breast cancer and IV is the most severe stage. Stage 0 means that the cancer has been diagnosed early and has remained in the breast. Stage IV means the cancer has advanced and metastasized, spreading to other parts of the body like the lungs, liver, bones, and brain.

Next, there are grades that measure how the cells look and how fast they are growing compared to normal cells. This helps doctors determine the likelihood of the cancer spreading to other parts of your body. These range from Grade 1 (well differentiated) to Grade 3 (poorly differentiated).

Finally, there are letters used to indicate the specific type of cancer, known as the “TNM System.” These letters include:

  • T – “T” stands for tumor, which is the lump of cancer found in the breast. The higher the number assigned after this letter, the larger the cancerous mass is.
  • N – “N” stands for nodes (lymph nodes), which work to catch cancerous cells before they move to other areas of the body. A number is also assigned here to communicate whether the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes near the breast and, if so, how many.
  • M – “M” stands for metastasis, which means that the cancer has spread beyond the breast and lymph nodes to other parts of the body

The letters in the TNM System are used to help communicate the size and scope of the cancer. This includes whether the cancer has remained in one place or spread to other parts of the body and, if so, how extensive it is.

Breast Cancer Treatments

There are also different breast cancer treatments that depend on the specific type of breast cancer you have and its severity (based on the labeling system detailed above). Some of the most common types of treatment for breast cancer include:

  • Surgery – An operation is performed where a surgeon cuts out the cancerous tissue from your body.
  • Chemotherapy – Special medicines are used to shrink or kill the cancer cells in your body. These medicines can either be pills or intravenous (IV) drips.
  • Hormonal Therapy – The cancer cells are blocked from getting the hormones they need to grow.
  • Radiation Therapy – High-energy rays—similar to X-rays—are used to kill cancer cells.
  • Biological Therapy – Assists your body’s immune system in fighting the cancer cells and/or mitigating the side effects of other cancer treatments.

Breast Cancer Risks and Prevention

There is no guaranteed way to completely prevent developing breast cancer. However, there are certain steps you can take to limit your risk. Certain risk factors can increase the likelihood of developing breast cancer, including the following:

  • Getting older, as the risk of developing breast cancer increases with age
  • Having dense breasts, which have more connective tissue than fatty tissue
  • Family history of breast or ovarian cancer
  • Personal history of breast cancer or other breast diseases
  • Reproductive history: individuals who started menstrual periods before the age of 12 and menopause after the age of 55 are at a higher risk of developing breast cancer
  • Genetic mutations, which are inherited from parents and change certain genes—like BRCA1 and BRCA2—and can increase the risk of developing breast cancer
  • Previous treatment using radiation therapy
  • Exposure to diethylstilbestrol (DES), which was a drug that was previously used to prevent miscarriage
  • Physical inactivity
  • Alcohol consumption
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Smoking

Some of these risk factors are out of your control, but some are things that you can change to reduce your risk of getting breast cancer. Another important part of breast cancer prevention is routinely getting screened. While getting screened can’t actually prevent breast cancer, annual breast examinations—also referred to as breast cancer screenings—can help identify breast cancer early on, which gives you a better chance of treating it. 

At MyAlly Health, we understand the importance of Breast Cancer Awareness Month and limiting your risk of developing breast cancer. We offer annual wellness examinations that include a breast exam to check for lumps or other signs of breast cancer. If you’d like to schedule an appointment for an exam, contact us today!

Additionally, we offer physicals and mental health screenings to promote your overall health. You can also receive examinations like Pap smears to test for cervical cancer, and Gardasil vaccinations to protect you from HPV infections.

MyAlly Health offers confidential reproductive health services to women and men in the Grand Forks, North Dakota area, regardless of income or age. This includes preventive care, like getting tested for STIs, breast examinations, and pelvic examinations; determining the best birth control for you; and even getting vaccinated against the flu. The clinical services we provide are all performed by Nurse Practitioners and Resident Physicians. 

In order to empower and engage individuals in their well-being and reproductive health, MyAlly Health offers education, counseling, advocacy, and healthcare services. Find out more about what we do, help make a difference by donating to our cause, or schedule an appointment with us today!