October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month and a great time of year to get screened and learn about new treatment options. Breast cancer research has advanced considerably over the past 30 years, but there is still a lot to learn about this increasingly common disease. Thankfully, there is an active community of scientists, healthcare professionals and support groups engaged in educating the public and promoting better disease management. And their advice is simple: prevent, screen and treat.
What is Breast Cancer?
Breasts are composed of subcutaneous fat, but the lumpy feeling we associate with breast cancer only rarely occurs in fat tissue. Cancerous cells are more likely to develop in the lobes, lobules and ducts that join around the nipple. Ductal carcinoma is the most common type of breast cancer and can spread through the blood and lymph; lobular carcinoma is typically found in both breasts, but rarely spreads; inflammatory cancer, which swells the entire breast, is the least common breast cancer.
Breast Cancer Prevention
There is only so much we can do to prevent breast cancer, and certain risk factors, such as genetic predisposition, are completely out of our control. We can, however, pay attention to our lifestyles, eat healthy, avoid carcinogens and take preventative medicines when appropriate. Lifestyle changes to consider include exercising, quitting smoking, drinking less alcohol and keeping a healthy weight. Studies have shown that obesity increases the risk for breast cancer, especially after menopause, so maintaining a healthy diet is critical. But lifestyle changes are never a sure bet; the truth is that we’re all cancer–susceptible to some degree, so the best way to beat breast cancer early is to screen for it.
This year’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month includes a National Mammography Day on October 16th. Of all the screening methods, mammography is by far the most common, though the medical community is split regarding its efficacy. Recent studies suggest that mammography screenings do not lead to a reduction in mortality among cancer patients generally. There is also the risk of over diagnosis—when pathology is detected, but the cancer never progresses to symptoms or death—which has been shown to occur to at least one in five women who receive mammograms. However, a more successful “work–up” process has been standardized in recent years that combines mammography, diagnostics and optional biopsy. Otherwise, there are also MRI screenings and clinical breast examinations, both of which have been shown to be efficacious.
Breast cancer treatment varies widely based on the stage at which the cancer is found. Surgical procedures, such as mastectomy and lumpectomy, are standard measures taken to resect a tumor once found. If the cancer has spread beyond the original tumor, medication and radiation (chemotherapy) are used in tandem to halt metastasis and kill circulating tumor cells in the bloodstream. Estrogen blockers are the most common drugs used in breast cancer treatment, but current research is focusing on target–specific drugs that bind directly with cancerous cells, leaving a patient’s normal cells intact.
What Can You Do?
National Breast Cancer Awareness Month is an opportunity to stay informed and spread the word about developments in breast cancer management. Think about scheduling an appointment with your doctor for a preventative screening, practice self–breast exams regularly at home and get the facts straight about what you need to stay healthy. The more you know, the more prepared you will be.