Breast cancer is one of the most common types of cancers found in females. Though it may affect males too it’s very rare (< 1%). It is also the second leading cause of death in females after lung cancer (females die more of lung cancer than males). Although there has been a great improvement in the death rate due to breast cancer in recent years but still it is estimated that 1 in 38 (around 2.6%) woman die of breast cancer due to its late detection.
Understanding Breast Cancer
Breast cancer occurs when cells in the breast grow abnormally or out of control. It usually starts as a lump in the breast or armpit but it is not necessary that every breast cancer will have a lump. Also these lumps may take considerable time to grow to an extent that they are felt by the female. But screening mammograms can find lumps as well as other changes in the breast at a much earlier stage before it can be actually felt by the female or before it develops any alarming symptoms. Thus screening for breast cancer and general awareness about its warning signs is most important to catch it at an early stage as the treatment for early-stage breast cancer is comparatively easy and effective. Also, the chances of survival are highest for early-stage breast cancer. Once it has advanced or spread to other parts of the body, it becomes difficult to manage it. Although a mammogram is the best way to screen breast changes sometimes it may not be able to find some forms of breast cancers. So it is equally important to keep a check on any breast changes and be aware of the breast cancer warning signs for early detection.
Warning Signs – Beware!
Here are some of the most common warning signs of breast cancer that every female should know:
- A painless, hard mass or lump with irregular edges (but a soft, tender, rounded or painful lump should also be checked)
- Swelling in one or all parts of the breast
- Dimpling or irritation of breast skin
- Pain in nipple or breast that does not go away
- Inward turning or retraction of the nipple.
- Thickening of nipple
- Warmth, redness, darkening or scaling of breast.
- Discharge from nipple other than milk.
- Itchy or scaly rash on the nipple.
- Any change in the appearance or the feel of breast or nipple.
These are just a few commonly found symptoms and may not appear at all in some cases. Also there can be some other changes in the breast that can be cancerous. So do not ignore anything that is unusual and discuss it with your doctor.
What should be the next step if I find any changes in my breast?
Well, the answer is quite obvious. You should immediately make an appointment with your doctor and discus the changes with her. It is not always that these changes are due to breast cancer only as many times body or hormonal changes may also cause some of these symptoms. But a check on them and a discussion with your doctor will keep you safe. If required, the doctor may ask for further screening that usually starts with a mammogram. A mammogram is just an X-ray of the breast that will not cause any pain or discomfort to you. It is the best way to look for any changes in the breast. If any suspicion arises for breast cancer, there can be further testing required to confirm the diagnosis.
Treatment after diagnosis of breast cancer
Treatment for breast cancer is a comprehensive plan that is made based upon the stage of breast cancer and the characteristics of cancer cells. Technology has advanced to a new level and there are so many new treatments available for breast cancer apart from the usual ones. So the treatment plan may include the following types of treatments for breast cancer:
Surgery: Surgery is performed to remove the breast cancer tumor. Along with tumor some of the adjoining healthy tissue is also removed and lymph nodes under the arm are thoroughly examined or removed (if required). Lumpectomy (removal only the lump) or mastectomy (removal of the complete breast) is done to remove the tumor. Surgery is often the choice of treatment in most of the early stage breast cancer cases, including DCIS and early-stage invasive breast cancer. But if cancer has advanced and spread to other parts of the body, more intense treatment is required.
Radiation therapy: It may be given before or after the surgery depending upon the tumor size. There are many types of radiotherapy that use high energy radiations (x-rays) to destroy cancer cells. Some of the commonly performed types of radiation therapy are External-beam radiation therapy, Partial breast irradiation (PBI), Intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT), Hypo-fractionated radiation therapy, Proton therapy, and intra-operative radiation therapy. The choice of type of radiotherapy depends upon the size, location, and characteristics of tumor cells.
Systemic therapy: This is the treatment that is given either through the mouth or through the vein. It may also be given before the surgery to shrink the tumor size or after surgery to kill any remaining cancer cells. Chemotherapy, hormonal therapy, targeted therapy, biological therapy are all forms of systemic therapy. Out of these, hormonal therapy is emerging as one of the most effective treatments for breast cancer. It requires Immunohistochemistry (IHC)testing of hormone receptor and HER2 status in breast cancer patients. The status of these two may further help in preparing the right treatment plan for the breast cancer.
Treatment for advanced breast cancer is quite exhausting and requires a lot of courage and patience. But its early detection is possible by spreading awareness about its warning signs and available screening tests. So every woman should keep a check on any abnormal changes in her breast or axilla and undergo regular mammograms for early detection of breast cancer. It is a popular saying that prevention is
better than cure but in breast cancer, it becomes early detection is better than harsh treatments. But nevertheless, even if it is detected at a later stage, there are many life-saving treatment options available for breast cancer. So never lose hope and keep the spirits high.