Written by Michele Wheat
Breast cancer is a serious problem that affects both women and, to a lesser degree, men. It is a health concern both in the United States and in countries around the world. Often, people do not fully understand what breast cancer is or why some people develop it. Because it is such a potentially deadly medical condition, it is important that people are educated on the topic, even if they feel they are not at risk. By understanding breast cancer, people can help their loved ones recognize and combat it in a timely manner.
What Is Breast Cancer?
Like other forms of cancer, breast cancer is a disease. This particular form of the disease involves the rapid growth of cells in one or both breasts. Often, this growth begins in the lobes or ducts that produce or carry milk; however, cell growth can potentially begin to develop in breast tissue in other areas as well. These cells are malignant, or cancerous, and they grow to form a tumor. They also have the ability to spread from the breast and invade other areas of the body.
More than 200,000 new cases of breast cancer occur every year, with up to 40,000 deaths resulting from the disease. Breast cancer can strike at any age, but more than 75 percent of women get breast cancer after the age of 50. Statistics show that early detection is key to survival, with 99 percent of women living for five years or longer when breast cancer is caught in its earliest stages. While breast cancer can strike both men and women, women are as much as 100 times more likely to develop breast cancer than men.
Various factors increase one's risk of developing breast cancer. Age, for instance, is a breast cancer risk factor in a number of ways. For example, the risk of developing breast cancer increases as one ages. And starting menstruation at an early age, typically younger than 12 years old, potentially results in a 20 percent higher risk than women who started menstruating later. Women who start menopause at a later age also face a higher risk than women who start earlier. For example, according to the Susan G. Komen Foundation, women who reach menopause at 55 or older are at a 30 percent higher risk than women who reach menopause ten years earlier. People who drink alcohol may have a 20 percent higher chance of developing the disease if they consume two or three alcoholic drinks daily than if they do not. Other risks include having the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene or a family history where members have had either breast or ovarian cancer. Not giving birth to children, taking birth control pills, hormone replacement therapy, excessive body weight, and living a sedentary lifestyle are also risks.
While there is no guaranteed way to prevent breast cancer, there are actions that women can take to reduce their risk. Engaging in 150 hours of moderate exercise per week, such as fast walking, can reduce one's risk by almost 20 percent. Mothers who breastfeed can reduce their chance of developing breast cancer by up to ten percent, and eating foods with carotenoids can improve one's odds by almost 20 percent. Foods with carotenoids include carrots, leafy greens, and other fruits and vegetables. Those with a family history of breast cancer may consider more extreme solutions, such as taking drugs like tamoxifen or even having a mastectomy.
There are very clear and obvious symptoms that are associated with breast cancer. It is important that people learn to recognize these symptoms, as early detection is an important first step toward discovering and treating the condition. One of the most well-known and talked about signs of breast cancer is a lump in the breast. A lump that is painless or slightly prickly may appear in the breast, or it may appear in the underarm. The size or the shape of the breast may change, or there may be dimples, pitting, or redness over the breast. Tenderness or pain in the breast is another cancer sign to look out for. The nipples may invert or develop a bloody or clear discharge, or there maybe flaking or peeling around the areola.
Once breast cancer has been discovered and diagnosed, treatment can begin. One's physician will determine what is the best treatment plan based on the patient's specific case and the stage and severity of the cancer. Treatment options include drugs that disable or kill cancer cells, such as chemotherapy, hormone therapy, and targeted biologic agents. Surgical treatment includes a mastectomy that removes the breast entirely or a lumpectomy, in which a portion of the breast is removed along with the cancer. Nipple-sparing mastectomies remove the cancerous tissue but save the nipple and as much of the tissue that surrounds it as possible. Radiation is yet another method of treatment that can be used on the whole breast or part of it.
The key to educating people about breast cancer lies in raising awareness of the disease. One of the high-profile ways to do this is to wear wristbands and ribbons that convey concern about breast cancer. Wristbands and ribbons meant for breast cancer awareness are colored pink, and October is the month dedicated to breast cancer awareness. There are other ways to raise awareness about this disease as well, including social media activity and blog posts. All of these venues help to get people's attention about breast cancer and create interest in learning about how to detect and fight the disease.
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