Updated: Jul 2, 2019
It is estimated that about 1 in 8 Canadian women will develop breast cancer during her lifetime and 1 in 31 will die from it. The statistics are scary, but there is more hope today for breast cancer patients than there has been in the past - mostly due to advancement in detection and treatment. Here's what you need to know:
Last week, I met a woman who was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. It was the first time I had met her and she seemed pretty tense. So, after exchanging pleasantries and completing some formalities, I started the conversation by asking her what came to mind when she thought about breast cancer. She said, "a bald head and a flat chest". That to me was an indication of what she dreaded the most. So this week, I would like to blog about breast cancer, and make a humble attempt to educate my readers on the topic. Not all breast cancer patients end up shaving their head and getting a mastectomy!
What is breast cancer?
Cells in the breast sometimes change and no longer grow or behave normally. These changes may lead to one or more breast conditions which could be benign (like cysts or hyperplasia) or malignant (like ductal or lobular carcinoma). Did you know, even men can get breast cancer? Men have breast tissue just like women, it's just that their breasts are less developed. It is true that less than 1% of all breast cancers occur in men, however almost all of the breast cancers found in men are ductal carcinoma (mostly invasive).
Am I at risk?
Most cancers are the result of many risk factors. But sometimes breast cancer develops in women who don’t have any of the risk factors. Breast cancer mostly occurs in women between 50 and 69 years of age, so age is a risk factor. The main reason women develop breast cancer is because their breast cells are exposed to the female hormones "estrogen" and "progesterone". These hormones, especially estrogen, are linked with breast cancer and encourage the growth of some breast cancers.
The risk of developing breast cancer is higher if one or more first-degree relatives (such as a mother, sister, or daughter) had breast cancer, especially if they were diagnosed before menopause. In fact, the Canadian Cancer Society says that having one first-degree relative with breast cancer approximately doubles a woman’s risk of getting breast cancer.
As I mentioned earlier, estrogen is the main hormone associated with breast cancer. So, any events causing increased exposure of breast cells to estrogen, are considered risk factors. So, early onset of menstruation, late onset of menopause, no pregnancies or late pregnancies, are all risk factors.
There are many other risk factors associated with the development of breast cancer. The Canadian Cancer Society states that significant evidence shows no link between antiperspirants, deodorants, abortion, breast implants or bras and a higher risk of breast cancer.
When breast cancer is found and treated early, the chances of successful treatment are better. Prevention is always better than cure, but early detection is the next best thing, when possible. Here are the current Canadian guidelines on breast cancer screening:
- If you are 40 to 49 years old, talk to your doctor about your risk for breast cancer, along with the benefits and limitations of having a mammogram.
- If you are 50 to 74 years old, have a mammogram every 2 years.
- If you are 75 or older, talk to your doctor about whether having a mammogram is right for you.
"The most common symptom of a growth in the breast is a firm or hard lump that feels very different from the rest of the breast. It may feel like it is attached to the skin or the surrounding breast tissue. The lump doesn’t get smaller or come and go with your period. It may be tender, but it’s usually not painful. (Pain is more often a symptom of a non-cancerous condition)."
Other symptoms of breast cancer could be a lump in the armpit, changes in the shape or size of the breast, changes to the nipple, or discharge that comes out of the nipple without squeezing it or that has blood in it.
As the cancer grows and spreads in the body, it causes certain symptoms that are common to most types of cancer, like: unintentional weight loss, nausea, loss of appetite, weakness, and generalised bone pain and body aches.
If you feel any of the above symptoms or are unsure about them, make sure you see your doctor as soon as possible.
The process of diagnosis may seem long and frustrating. It’s normal to worry, but try to remember that other health conditions can cause similar symptoms as breast cancer. Along with a thorough medical history and physical examination, your doctor will order some blood tests, a mammogram and maybe even an ultrasound. However, biopsy remains the gold standard for diagnosis and classification of breast cancer.
If you have been diagnosed with breast cancer, your doctor will create a treatment plan for you. It will be based on your general health and specific information about the cancer, obtained from the various tests that were performed. I recommend you to play an active role in designing your treatment plan. Ask questions, gather information and never be afraid or shy to seek help from friends and family.
Most women need surgery. Chemotherapy, radiation therapy, hormone replacement therapy are other treatment options used to treat breast cancer in combination with surgery. After surgery, some women feel uncomfortable about their physical appearance. Breast reconstruction (plastic surgery) and breast prosthesis (artificial breast not attached to the body) are options for these women.
There are many programs and services available to help meet the needs and improve the quality of life of people living with cancer and their loved ones, especially after treatment has ended. There are services that help people meet the physical, practical, emotional and spiritual challenges of breast cancer.
To make the right decisions and to access these programs, make sure you ask your doctor questions about supportive care. If you have a rare form of breast cancer, ask your doctor about ongoing clinical trials or research studies, if you are interested in joining one.
For most people, a cancer diagnosis changes life in a way that it's never the same again. At in4MED, we can make this stressful time easier by providing you with information about your diagnosis, connecting you to local support systems and being there for you as your trusted health advocates. As always, feel free to connect with me or leave a comment.
Healthcare Consultant, in4MED
Breast cancer statistics https://www.cancer.ca/en/cancer-information/cancer-type/breast/statistics/?region=on
Canadian Cancer Society: Breast Cancer https://www.cancer.ca/en/cancer-information/cancer-type/breast/breast-cancer/?region=on
Breast Cancer Society of Canada https://bcsc.ca/
Types of Breast Cancer https://www.breastcancer.org/symptoms/types
The author of this blog post is a Physician with over 10 years of experience working in the healthcare system as a clinician, researcher and educator. She is passionate about healthcare for older adults and strives to be a resourceful inspiration to caregivers.
*No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified healthcare professional.