Cancer results from abnormal changes or mutations in the genes that are responsible for regulating cell growth and health. These changes can cause uncontrolled cell division and growths, called tumors, in a particular region of the body. Tumors may be benign and not affect our health in any way, or they may be malignant and harmful or cancerous. Left alone, malignant tumors can spread to other parts of the body.
Breast cancer, then, is the uncontrolled growth of cells in the breasts. These growths cause malignant tumors, usually in the milk-producing regions of the breast. If these cancer cells invade the lymph nodes in the underarm, they can invade other parts of the body and cause severe harm or death.
Breast cancer occurs in 1 in 8 women, or 13%, in the United States. Breast cancer is among the most commonly diagnosed cancers in the U.S., second only to skin cancer. Women die of breast cancer more than any other cancer except lung cancer. Despite these bleak statistics, breast cancer deaths have been decreasing since 1990, probably as a result of better treatment and early detection through screening procedures and awareness campaigns. In 2008, there were 2.5 million breast cancer survivors in the U.S.
Women and men of all races and ethnicities can develop breast cancer, however, the biggest risk factors for breast cancer include family history (20-30% of women diagnosed have a family history), gender (being a woman), and age (risk increases with age).
Yearly screening for women beginning at age 40 (or earlier if you have a family history) is one of the best ways to detect breast cancer at an early stage. Screening for breast cancer is most commonly performed through mammography, or taking an X-ray of the breast. Mammograms are very accurate, however, to obtain the best results and effectively track changes, it is important to get a mammogram every year and also have a clinical breast exam from your doctor.
Women of all ages should perform a monthly breast self-exam at home to monitor changes in their breasts. According to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, almost 70% of breast cancers are found through self-exams. To obtain the most accurate results, perform a self-exam once per month at the same time every month. It’s best to perform a self-exam during the week following menstruation, when the breasts are the least tender. You can perform a self-exam in the following ways, feeling for small, hard, beady lumps in your breasts.
- In the shower: With your fingers flat, move over every part of the breast in small circles, checking for any lump, hard knot, or thickening.
- In front of a mirror: Look at your breasts with your arms at your sides, noticing any changes in shape, size, or dimpling. Raise your arms overhead and notice any changes. Finally, put your hands on your hips and flex your chest muscles, pushing the breast forward.
- Lying down: Position your right shoulder on a pillow and put your right arm overhead. With your left hand finger flat, press the right breast gently in small circles, moving over the entire breast. Vary the pressure you use. Squeeze the nipple gently, checking for discharge or lumps. Repeat on the other side.
If you detect a lump, talk to your doctor. Don’t worry: many times a lump is not actually breast cancer.
Although there are many risks for breast cancer that you can’t control, such as age and family history, some lifestyle choices can decrease your risk for developing breast cancer:
- Alcohol: A correlation may exist between alcohol consumption and breast cancer development. Try to limit alcoholic beverages to one drink or less per day.
- Body weight: There is a strong correlation between obesity and breast cancer, particularly if you gain weight later in life. Fat tissue produces estrogen, which may cause an increased risk of breast cancer.
- Exercise: Being physically active helps you maintain a healthy body weight and bone density, both of which may reduce your risk for breast cancer. Weight-bearing exercise—walking, jogging, lifting weights, or yoga—also reduces your risk for osteoporosis, another disease afflicting women as they age.
- Fat Intake: Some research suggests that a low-fat diet may reduce the risk of breast cancer, along with heart disease, diabetes, and stroke.