Breaking Down Breast Cancer

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Around 1 in 8 women in the U.S. will develop breast cancer in their lifetime. Cancer happens when abnormal cells grow and divide uncontrollably. Though breast cancer primarily appears in women, men can actually get breast cancer too and are affected by the same types of breast cancer as women. About 1 in every 100 diagnosed case of breast cancer in the U.S. affects men. Breast cancer becomes particularly dangerous when it spreads outside the breast through blood and lymph vessels, a process called metastasizing.

The most common type of breast cancer is Invasive ductal carcinoma, where cancer cells begin in the ducts that bring milk to the nipple. Many breast cancers also start in the glands that make milk, called invasive lobular carcinoma. It is unclear why some people get breast cancer while others do not. However, research has indicated certain risk factors for breast cancer including age, genetic mutations, and family history. Other factors surrounding lifestyle include not being physically active, taking hormones, and drinking alcohol.

Some symptoms of breast cancer are lumps in the breast or underarm, nipple retraction, irritation of the breast skin, and nipple discharge.  Mammograms, X-rays of the breast, can be used to detect small tumors in the breast before the tumors are big enough to see or feel. In addition to mammograms, doctors may also use breast ultrasounds, and MRIs to diagnose breast cancer in certain patients. Doctors may also use a biopsy, a test that removes fluid from the breast to perform further testing on. Treatments are chosen based on the type and severity of the cancer. Most breast lumps come from non-cancerous conditions such as fibrocystic condition, which causes breast tenderness, and cysts, small growths filled with fluid.

There are many treatments for breast cancer, and patients often get multiple different treatments. Chemotherapy uses medicine to kill cancer cells. Radiation energy uses intense energy beams to kill cancer cells. Hormonal therapy blocks estrogen receptors on breast cancer cells. Surgery can also be used to cut out cancerous tissues. Patients will meet with their oncologist to develop a treatment plan combining different types of treatments. For early-stage invasive cancers, doctors usually recommend surgery. For larger cancers, doctors usually recommend chemotherapy or hormonal treatment before surgery. After surgery, doctors often recommend adjuvant therapy to lower the risk of recurrence and can include radiation therapy, chemotherapy, targeted therapy, and hormonal therapy. Some patients also use a tumor board, a group of medical experts on cancer who work together to find a treatment plan.

Breast cancer death rates are higher than other types of cancer. It is also the most common type of cancer in women, accounting for 30% of all diagnosed cancers in women. Luckily, the breast cancer death rate is decreasing because of advances in treatment and the ability to detect breast cancer earlier through better screening.

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