Breast cancer has been a widespread disease for years. Its cause is unknown, and it knows no race or age boundaries for attacking mostly women. The numbers are startling.
According to thebreastcancersite.com, a Web site that helps fund free mammograms for underprivileged women, 182,000 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer (one every three minutes) and 43,300 women will die (one every 12 minutes) of breast cancer this year.
The National Cancer Institute (NCI) estimates that about one in eight women in the United States (approximately 13.3 percent) will develop breast cancer during her lifetime.
Breast cancer is an uncontrolled growth of breast cells that may form a mass of extra tissue called a tumor. Tumors can be benign (non-cancerous) or malignant (cancerous). The most common type of breast cancer begins in the lining of the ducts -- the tube-like part of the breast that milk passes through to reach the nipple -- called ductal carcinoma. When it spreads outside the ducts, it is called invasive breast cancer (most breast cancers are invasive). Metastatic breast cancer is cancer that has spread from the site of the initial cancer to other parts of the body.
Certain factors can increase a woman's risk of getting breast cancer, although 70 percent of women with breast cancer have no known risk factors, according to the National Breast Cancer Foundation. These risk factors include heredity, early puberty, late childbearing, obesity and lifestyle factors such as heavy alcohol consumption and smoking. Studies from the NCI have shown that alcohol consumption can cause a 40 to 70 percent increased risk of breast cancer with two drinks daily.
However, the biggest risk factor of all is age. Most breast cancers occur in women over the age of 50, and women over 60 are at the highest risk, according to breastcancer.org, a nonprofit organization for breast cancer education. In addition, a woman's risk for developing breast cancer increases if her mother, sister, daughter or two or more other close relatives, such as cousins, have a history of breast cancer, especially at a young age. Yet 85 percent of women who develop breast cancer have no known family history of the disease.
The scariest part about breast cancer is that you can have it and not even know it. Early breast cancer usually does not cause pain and there may even be no symptoms at all. However, as the cancer grows, it can cause any of the following changes: a lump or thickening in or near the breast or in the underarm area; a change in the size or shape of the breast; nipple discharge or tenderness; inverted nipples; ridges or pitting of the breast (skin looks similar to an orange peel); and the way the skin of the breast, areola (area surrounding the nipple) or nipple looks or feels (red, scaly, warm or swollen).
Studies show that regular breast self-exams, combined with an annual exam by a doctor, improve the chances of detecting cancer early, which is the key to more treatment options and a greater chance of survival.
One way women can take an active part in the early detection of breast cancer, according to thebreastcancersite.com, is by following an early detection plan which means having:
- breast examinations by your doctor every three years
from ages 20 to 39 and every year thereafter
- monthly breast self-examinations beginning at age
20 to look for any changes in your breasts
- a baseline mammogram (first one) by the age of 40
- a mammogram every one to two years for women
ages 40 to 49, depending on previous mammogram
- and a mammogram every year for women over 50
Keeping a record of your self-exams and mammograms and marking your calendar with reminders will help you follow your early detection plan.
Get in the habit of doing a breast self-examination once a month to familiarize yourself with how your breasts normally look and feel. Examine yourself several days after your period ends, when your breasts are least likely to be swollen and tender. If you are no longer having periods, choose a day that's easy to remember, such as the first or last day of the month.
Step 1 -- In the shower with fingers flat, move gently over every part of each breast. Use your right hand to examine your left breast, and left hand for right breast. Check for a lump, hard knot or thickening. Carefully observe any changes in your breasts.
Step 2 -- In front of a mirror, put your arms at your sides and inspect your breasts. Raise your arms high overhead and look for any changes in the contour of each breast, a swelling, a dimpling of skin or changes in the nipple. Then rest your palms on your hips and press firmly to flex your chest muscles. Note that few women's left and right breasts match exactly.
Step 3 -- Lying down, place a pillow under your right shoulder, with right arm behind your head. With fingers of the left hand flat, press right breast gently in small circular motions, moving vertically or in a circular pattern, covering the entire breast. Use light, medium and firm pressure. Squeeze nipple and check for discharge and lumps. Repeat these steps for your left breast.
Don't panic if you think you feel a lump. Most women have some lumps or lumpy areas in their breasts all the time, and eight out of 10 breast lumps that are removed are benign. However, if you notice any changes that last over a full month's cycle or seem to get worse or more obvious over time, it's best to bring them to the attention of your doctor.