October is Breast Cancer Awareness month. For almost forty years now a pink ribbon has been used to honor survivors, remember those who have lost their lives to the disease, and to support those who are currently on their journey to defeat breast cancer. Incepted in 1982, Susan G. Komen for the Cure® has designated the pink ribbon to promote their survivor program and awareness for its organization.
Breast cancer is the most frequent malignancy and the second leading cause of cancer death in women. Let’s dive into understanding more about breast cancer and how it can be detected, treated, and how those diagnosed navigate the options available to them.
What is Breast Cancer?
Breast cancer occurs when cells in the breast expand and divide uncontrollably resulting in the formation of a tumor. A lump, change in breast size, or change in the appearance of breast skin can all be indicators.
There are three main parts of the breast: lobules, ducts, and connective tissue. The lobules are responsible for producing milk. The ducts carry milk to the nipple and the connective tissue holds everything together. Breast cancer can spread within the breast or outside of this area into the blood vessels and lymph vessels. When the cancer spreads to the other parts of the body it is said to have metastasized.
Self-Awareness & Screenings
Women should be aware of how their breasts look and feel, and men should be aware of any changes in or around their nipples. A woman should self-examine her breasts periodically, especially if she experiences any sort of alteration. Any unusual symptoms should be reported to a doctor right away.
How to Perform a Self-Exam by the Mayo Clinic:
- Visual Inspection: stand in front of a mirror and take note of any differences in symmetry with your arms down by your side, abducted to the side and flexed overhead.
- Hand Examination: lying down or in the shower move your fingertips/pads along the breast and provide various levels of pressure. Make a note if you feel an abnormal lump of tissue.
Why Does Breast Cancer Happen?
The American Cancer Society reports that what causes each case of breast cancer is unknown. One’s lifestyle provides insight into risk factors that are linked to breast cancer including diet and exercise. Hormones also play a role in the formation of abnormal cells.
It is known that breast cells can become cancerous because of changes or mutations in the genes of the tissue. This contributes to 10% of cases that are passed on from parents. Most gene mutations take place at some point during a person’s life rather than being inherited. Changes in the DNA structure occur, and the cells replicate over time resulting in an abnormal mass of tissue called a tumor.
Breast cancer early warning signals may include a new lump or mass, present visually or with a physical exam. The top seven warning signs include:
- Swollen lymph nodes under the arm or around the collarbone.
- Swelling of all or part of the breast.
- Skin irritation or dumpling.
- Breast or nipple pain.
- Nipple retraction.
- Redness, scaliness, or thickening of the nipple or breast skin.
- Nipple discharge.
A breast cancer’s type is determined by the specific cells in the breast that become cancerous. The types include:
- Ductal Carcinoma In Situ (DCIS) – Non-invasive cancer where abnormal cells have been found in the lining of the breast milk duct. The cells have not spread outside of the ducts and is highly treatable when detected early.
- Invasive Ductal Carcinoma (IDC) – An invasive cancer where abnormal cancer cells began to form in the milk ducts and spread to other parts of the breast tissue. This is the MOST COMMON type of breast cancer making up nearly 70-80% of all diagnoses. It is the type that most commonly affects men as well.
- Lobular Carcinoma In Situ (LCIS) – Abnormal cells are found in the lobules of the breast. Typically, these have not spread into surrounding tissues. This is treatable and rarely becomes invasive, however it is likely that once one breast is affected the other will become affected as well.
- Invasive Lobular Cancer (ILC) – Cancer that begins in the lobules (milk glands) and spreads to surrounding normal tissue. This is the second most common type of breast cancer (10%) and can spread through the blood and lymph systems to other parts of the body.
- Triple Negative Breast Cancer – These types of tumor cells lack the necessary receptors (estrogen, progesterone, and the HER-2/neu gene) that normally respond to treatments like hormone therapy. Therefore, the effective option to target these abnormal cells is chemotherapy.
- Inflammatory Breast Cancer (IBC) – An aggressive and fast-growing cancer that infiltrates the skin and lymph vessels. Symptoms begin to appear when the lymph vessels become blocked by the cancer cells.
- Metastatic Breast Cancer – STAGE 4 Breast Cancer. In this event, the cancer has spread to other parts of the body including lungs, liver, bones or brain. This type of cancer usually happens through one or more of the following:
- Cancers invade healthy cells that are nearby.
- The circulatory or lymph system becomes invaded by cancer cells.
- Migration through the blood stream to other parts of the body.
- Cancer cells become lodged in capillaries.
- New small tumors form in new locations.
While some things are out of our control like family history and genetics, there are things we can control to try and prevent breast cancer. Here are a few:
- Maintain a healthy weight.
- Be physically active.
- Choose not to drink alcohol or drink in moderation.
- Ask your doctor about the risks if you are taking hormone replacement therapy or oral contraceptives.
- If possible, breastfeed your children.
- Talk to your doctor in you have a family history of breast cancer or inherited changes in your BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes.
Living a healthy lifestyle will reduce your risk of getting cancer and increase your chances of surviving if you do.
- Local Treatments – Some medical procedures, such as surgery and radiation, are local, which means they just target the tumor and have no effect on the rest of the body.
- Systematic Approaches – Drugs that are used to treat breast cancer are referred to as systemic because they can reach anywhere in the body. They are administered orally, intramuscularly, or straight into the bloodstream.
– Various pharmacological therapies may be employed depending on the kind of cancer, including:
- Hormone Therapy
- Targeted Drug Therapy
Common Considerations While Treating Breast Cancer
Usually, the kind of breast cancer and its stage determine the course of treatment. Your general health, menopause status, and personal preferences are among the additional considerations. The following are used to determine the course of treatment:
- Stage-specific cancer treatment
- Treatment for cancer that is triple-negative
- Treatment for Inflammatory Breast Cancer
- Breast cancer treatment during pregnancy
Living as a Survivor
Keeping up to date with follow-up appointments is an important way to manage living as a cancer survivor. One’s personal schedule can include the following visits depending on the type of breast cancer, the stage of the cancer when it was found and how it was treated:
- Doctors’ Visits
- Pelvic Exam
- Bone Density Test
- Other Tests
At American Online Benefits Group, we have plans to help offset the costs when diagnosed with a critical illness, hospitalization and doctor’s visits associated with necessary medical care. For more information on how to enroll in a health plan or to become contracted with AOBG, contact a member of our Agent Services team at 214-389-9072.