October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month

Guest post from Dr. Shyamali Singhal, MD

Surgical Oncologist

Founder of Hope & Beauty

What Do We Need To Know About Breast Cancer

Early Detection Is Crucial

The Breast Cancer Awareness Month, marked in countries across the world every October, helps to increase attention and support for the awareness, early detection, and treatment as well as palliative care of this disease. Almost half of all women 40 and older have dense breasts.

Worldwide, the incidence of cancer has risen and is predicted to continue to rise. Fortunately, the rate of survival is also increasing. Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer in women, and it is predicted that 1 in 7 women will receive a diagnosis during their lifetime. It is important to be aware that whilst breast cancer is the most common cancer in women, men can also develop the disease – although it is much less common. The good news is that most women can survive breast cancer if it’s found and treated early. A mammogram – the screening test for breast cancer – can help find breast cancer early when it’s easier to treat.

Risk- Increasing Habits

Drinking alcohol and smoking tobacco are both associated with a heightened risk of breast cancer. As well as October is the month to raise awareness of breast cancer it is also the national month to encourage people to stop smoking – Stoptober, and stop drinking alcohol – Go Sober For October. So Dr. Shyamali Singhal says this is now a good time to try and ditch these habits. Being overweight or obese is also associated with an increased risk of breast cancer in postmenopausal women. In fact, 8% of breast cancer cases are said to be caused by greater body fatness. As well as sticking to the recommended healthy dietary guidelines, another way to achieve a healthy weight is to exercise. Research shows that those who exercise have a lower risk of breast cancer compared to those who do not exercise.  So don’t let the dark evenings and cold temperatures be a reason to stay in. Remember, exercise can be fun and it sometimes just takes a few attempts to find what activity you really enjoy.

Different Types Of Breast Cancer

There are a number of different types of breast cancer. The most common form of breast cancer is ductal carcinoma, which begins in the cells of the ducts. Cancer that begins in the lobes or lobules is called lobular carcinoma and is more often found in both breasts than are other types of breast cancer. Inflammatory breast cancer is an uncommon type of breast cancer in which the breast is warm, red, and distended. Being female and older in age are the main risk factors for breast cancer. Other risk factors include estrogen, dense breast tissue, age at menstruation and first birth, taking hormones for symptoms of menopause, smoking, obesity, and not getting enough exercise. Hereditary breast cancer makes up 5 percent to 10 percent of all breast cancer diagnoses. Women who have certain gene mutations, such as mutations in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes, have an increased risk of developing breast cancer and ovarian cancer.

Breast Cancer Symptoms

There are diverse symptoms of breast cancer, and some people have no symptoms at all. Symptoms can include:

  • Any change in the size or the shape of the breast.

  • Pain in any area of the breast.

  • Mammary discharge other than breast milk (including blood).

  • A new lump in the breast or underarm.

If you have any signs that trouble you, see your doctor right away.

We’ve known for a while that your risk of breast cancer gets lower with some lifestyle changes. Women who exercise, don’t smoke, don’t binge drink and stay a healthy weight after menopause have a lower risk.

Breast mammography, although imperfect, has been instrumental in detecting breast cancer when it does occur. Guidance regarding screening is controversial; the issue is the age that screening should begin.

Screening As The Most Effective Form Of Prevention

The American College of Radiology (ACR) recommends annual screening starting at age 40, while the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) believes that you should be screened every two years starting at age 50.

The American Cancer Society (ACS) recommends yearly screening at age 45, with the option for women to be screened when they’re 40 if they prefer. The differences reflect changing opinions on what age the benefits of screening outweigh the risks.

New to the scene is breast tomosynthesis, a 3D screening tool that received FDA approval in 2011. Research has shown better cancer detection rates with tomosynthesis, and fewer “false alarms,” when women with no disease are mistakenly called back for further testing.

Advances In Cancer Treatment

A diagnosis of cancer is frightening, but with advances in treatment, you and your doctor can find an ideal treatment plan. Surgeons may take out cancer in a method called a lumpectomy, with plans for radiation therapy following surgery.

This technique conserves most of the breast tissue. If the cancer is more advanced, a surgeon may perform a mastectomy, where the entire breast is removed.

There are many types of breast cancer; depending on cancer’s hormone receptor status and genetic factors, various treatments may work better.

Cancers with Estrogen Receptors (ER-positive) and Progesterone Receptors (PR-positive) may be given hormone therapy drugs to improve the outcome. Around two out of three breast cancers have at least one receptor.

Another relevant receptor is HER2, as this can be targeted with other medications. Cancers that don’t have any of these receptors are called “triple-negative” cancers and are typically more aggressive than other breast cancers.

Dr. Singhal says these cancers may require more aggressive treatment, such as chemotherapy. Not only will the tumor’s hormone receptor status be tested, but the rest of the genetic makeup of cancer itself may also be examined.