Addressing the basics of breast cancer

October 17, 2013

According to, one in eight American women will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of her lifetime. Though this figure is based on American women alone, it’s safe to say millions of women across the globe face a similar fate.

While organizations such as the Susan G. Komen for the Cure have been instrumental in raising awareness of breast cancer, many people remain largely uninformed about breast cancer and what, if anything, they can do to reduce their risk. But the more people understand breast cancer the more formidable a foe they become for this potentially deadly disease.

What is breast cancer?

Breast cancer is an uncontrolled growth of breast cells. According to Susan G. Komen For the Cure, between 50 and 75 percent of breast cancers begin in the ducts, which carry milk from the lobules to the nipple. Between 10 and 15 percent of breast cancer cases begin in the lobules, which are the milk-producing glands of the breast. Over time, these cancer cells can invade nearby breast tissue and may even spread into the underarm lymph nodes, which give the cancerous cells a pathway to the rest of the body.

Are there different types of breast cancer?

Breast cancer can be invasive or noninvasive. Invasive breast cancer occurs when abnormal cells from within the ducts or lobules break out into nearby breast tissue. When this occurs, the cancer cells can spread to the lymph nodes, which may allow them to spread even further throughout the body to organs like the liver and lungs and to bones. Noninvasive breast cancer occurs when abnormal cells grow within the milk ducts but have not spread to nearby tissue or other parts of the body. But noninvasive breast cancer can develop into invasive cancer.

Are there warning signs of breast cancer?

There may be no initial warning signs of breast cancer. A developing lump on the breast may be too small to notice, which only highlights the importance women must place on routine breast cancer exams. A mammogram, for example, is an X-ray of the breast that might detect symptoms of breast cancer that women did not notice. When such symptoms are detected, then further testing can be conducted to determine if breast cancer is present.

Women or their physicians also might detect breast cancer before a breast exam. A lump or mass on the breast can be detected during a self-exam or on a routine doctor visit. But the American Cancer Society notes that several unusual changes in the breast may also be symptomatic of breast cancer. These changes include:

* breast pain

* a lump in the underarm area

* nipple discharge other than milk

* nipple pain or the nipple turning inward

* redness, scaliness or thickening of the nipple or breast skin

* skin irritation or dimpling

* swelling of all or part of the breast

What are the risk factors for breast cancer?

Some risk factors for breast cancer are beyond a person’s control. You can’t stop aging, you have no way of changing your family history, and there’s nothing you can do about your own medical history. However, there are risk factors for breast cancer that are within your control.

* Alcohol consumption: Alcohol can affect a woman’s ability to control blood levels of estrogen, which can increase her risk for breast cancer. Studies have indicated that the more alcohol a woman consumes, the greater her risk of breast cancer becomes.

* Diet: Researchers often cite diet as a risk factor for various cancers, and breast cancer is no exception. However, there are no specifics as to which foods increase a person’s breast cancer risk. But studies have shown that eating a lot of red and/or processed meats may increase a person’s risk of developing breast cancer. Low-fat diets that include lots of fruits and vegetables may reduce your risk of developing many diseases, including breast cancer.

* Exercise: How often a person exercises may increase or decrease his or her risk of developing breast cancer. Studies have indicated that exercise can reduce breast cancer risk, and the ACS recommends that both men, who are not immune to breast cancer, and women get between 45 and 60 minutes of physical exercise five or more days per week.

* Weight: Being overweight is a significant risk factor for breast cancer, especially for women after menopause. Higher estrogen levels increase a person’s risk of breast cancer, and estrogen levels increase when a person has more fat tissue. Maintaining a healthy weight pays various dividends, not the least of which is reducing your risk of breast cancer.

Thanks to various organizations promoting breast cancer awareness and research, many individuals have at least a basic knowledge of the disease. While knowledge alone cannot prevent the onset of breast cancer, it may help men and women better protect themselves and their loved ones from a disease that afflicts millions of people across the globe each year.