October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, a time to raise awareness and educate women about the importance of early detection and prevention of breast cancer. Breast cancer is one of the most common cancers among women, affecting millions of women worldwide. However, with regular screening and self-examination, many cases can be diagnosed and treated at an early stage, increasing the chances of survival and recovery.
What is breast cancer and how does it develop?
Breast cancer is a disease that occurs when some cells in the breast grow abnormally and uncontrollably, forming a lump or a tumor. These cells can invade the surrounding tissue and spread to other parts of the body through the lymphatic system or the bloodstream. Breast cancer can affect both men and women, but it is much more common in women.
Breast cancer can develop in different parts of the breast, such as the ducts (the tubes that carry milk to the nipple), the lobules (the glands that produce milk), or the connective tissue (the fat, ligaments, and blood vessels that support the breast). Depending on where the cancer starts and how it behaves, it can be classified into different types, such as ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), invasive ductal carcinoma (IDC), invasive lobular carcinoma (ILC), or inflammatory breast cancer (IBC).
The exact causes of breast cancer are not fully understood, but some factors can increase the risk of developing it, such as age, family history, genetic mutations, hormonal changes, obesity, alcohol consumption, smoking, radiation exposure, or lack of physical activity.
Why is early detection important?
Early detection of breast cancer can make a significant difference in the outcome and prognosis of the disease. When breast cancer is found at an early stage, before it has spread to other organs, it is easier to treat and has a higher chance of being cured. According to the American Cancer Society, the five-year relative survival rate for women with localized breast cancer (confined to the breast) is 99%, compared to 28% for those with distant-stage breast cancer (spread to other parts of the body).
Early detection can also help reduce the need for aggressive treatments that can have serious side effects and impact the quality of life of patients. For example, some women with early-stage breast cancer may be able to avoid chemotherapy or mastectomy (surgical removal of the breast) and opt for less invasive options such as lumpectomy (surgical removal of the tumor) or radiation therapy.
How can you detect breast cancer early?
There are two main ways to detect breast cancer early: screening and self-examination.
Screening is a process of testing healthy people for signs of disease before they have any symptoms. The most common screening method for breast cancer is mammography, which is an X-ray examination of the breasts that can detect small changes or abnormalities that may indicate cancer. Mammograms can find tumors that are too small to be felt by hand or seen by other imaging techniques.
The American Cancer Society recommends that women aged 45 to 54 should get mammograms every year, while women aged 55 and older should get them every two years or continue yearly screening if they prefer. Women with a higher risk of breast cancer due to family history, genetic mutations, or other factors may need to start screening earlier or more frequently, as advised by their doctors.
Mammograms are not perfect and can sometimes miss cancers or show false positives (suggesting cancer when there is none). Therefore, it is important to follow up with your doctor if you have any questions or concerns about your results or if you notice any changes in your breasts between screenings.
Self-examination is a way of checking your own breasts for any lumps, bumps, or changes in shape, size, texture, or appearance. It involves looking at and feeling your breasts in front of a mirror or while lying down or showering. It is best done 3-5 days after your menstrual period ends when your breasts are less swollen and tender.
Self-examination can help you become familiar with how your breasts normally look and feel so that you can notice any unusual changes that may need further evaluation by a doctor. However, self-examination is not a substitute for screening and should not be relied on as the only method of detection. Some cancers may not cause any symptoms or may be too deep or too small to be felt by hand.
The American Cancer Society does not recommend routine self-examination for women who do not have symptoms or a higher risk of breast cancer. However, it encourages women to be aware of their breasts and report any changes to their doctors right away.
How to do a breast self-exam at home?
There is no right or wrong way to do a breast self-exam, but here are some general steps that you can follow, as suggested by the American Cancer Society and the Times of India:
- Stand in front of a mirror with your shoulders straight and your arms on your hips. Look at your breasts for any changes in size, shape, color, or symmetry. Check for any dimpling, puckering, bulging, or redness of the skin, or any changes in the nipples, such as inversion, discharge, or scaling. If you see any of these signs, contact your doctor.
- Raise your arms and look for the same changes. You can also clasp your hands behind your head and press your elbows forward to tighten your chest muscles and make any changes more visible.
- While you are at the mirror, gently squeeze each nipple and look for any discharge (fluid) that may come out. Discharge can be normal in some cases, such as during pregnancy or breastfeeding, but it can also be a sign of infection or cancer. If you have any discharge that is bloody, clear, or occurs without squeezing, see your doctor.
- Lie down on a flat surface with a pillow under your right shoulder and your right arm behind your head. Use the pads of your left hand to feel your right breast. You can use different patterns to cover the entire breast area, such as circular motions, up-and-down movements, or wedge-shaped sections. You can also use different levels of pressure to feel the different layers of tissue, from light to medium to firm. Make sure you cover the entire breast from the collarbone to the upper abdomen and from the armpit to the cleavage. Repeat the same steps for your left breast with your right hand.
- You can also do the same steps while standing or sitting, such as in the shower or while applying lotion. Some women find it easier to examine their breasts when they are wet and slippery.
If you find any lumps or changes in your breasts that concern you, do not panic. Most breast lumps are benign (not cancerous) and can be caused by hormonal changes, cysts, fibroadenomas, or other benign conditions. However, it is always better to be safe than sorry and consult your doctor as soon as possible for a proper diagnosis and treatment.
How can you prevent breast cancer?
While there is no sure way to prevent breast cancer, there are some things you can do to reduce your risk and improve your overall health. Some of these include:
- Maintaining a healthy weight and avoiding obesity
- Eating a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats
- Limiting alcohol intake to no more than one drink per day for women
- Quitting smoking or avoiding exposure to secondhand smoke
- Being physically active for at least 150 minutes per week
- Avoiding or limiting hormone replacement therapy (HRT) or oral contraceptives that contain estrogen and progesterone
- Breastfeeding your children if possible
- Getting regular check-ups and screenings as recommended by your doctor
- Knowing your family history and genetic risk factors and discussing them with your doctor
- Joining a support group or seeking counseling if you are coping with stress, anxiety, depression, or trauma related to breast cancer
Breast cancer is a serious but treatable disease that affects millions of women around the world. By being aware of your breasts and taking care of your health, you can help yourself and others fight this disease and live longer and happier lives.