I want to share these breast cancer facts because they’re essential to increase early detection and improve general awareness. And it’s especially important to me since I lost my aunt to breast cancer this past summer. Furthermore, I can’t think of a better way to honor her memory and help with my grieving than to help educate others about this disease—especially considering October is breast cancer awareness month. So, here are 12 breast cancer facts that I believe you should know right now.
Fact #1: Breast Cancer is Serious
Breast cancer can be defined as a type of invasive cancer in which abnormal cancer cells form in the breast. To be specific, these cancerous cells are commonly found in the breast ducts, fatty tissue, or fibrous connective tissue. Furthermore, there are advanced stages of breast cancer in which it migrates to the lymph nodes and proceeds to travel to other parts of the body.
Additionally, it’s the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths next to lung cancer. However, due to advancements in screening, treatment, and increased awareness, survival rates have increased. The American Cancer Society states that 3.1 million women in the U.S are breast cancer survivors. And, 2.6% of women (around 1 in 38 ) will die from breast cancer.
Fact #2: Early Detection Is Beneficial
Part of a well-balanced self-care routine should be focusing on body literacy and paying attention to subtle signs and clues that your health may be compromised. This includes becoming knowledgeable about common breast cancer symptoms. Doing so can helps you notice abnormalities and can aid in early detection.
Early signs and symptoms associated with breast cancer are:
- unusual armpit pain
- pitting, or redness of skin on the breast typically resembles an orange peel
- a rash around one or both nipples
- nipple discharge that may or may not contain blood
- sunken or inverted nipple
- change in breast size or shape
- the skin on the breast begins to peel, scale or flake
- lump or swelling under the arm
- lump in the breast
- abnormal breast pain
- breast swelling in all or specific parts of the breast
If you’re noticing any of these symptoms, visit with your doctor so you can be appropriately evaluated.
Fact #3: Lifestyle & Genetics Increase Your Overall Risk
While the exact cause of breast cancer is unknown, some general risk factors increase the possibility of contracting breast cancer. These factors can be categorized as lifestyle risk factors and genetic risk factors. Some common lifestyle risk factors include overconsumption of alcohol and smoking. However, refraining from these behaviors can decrease your risk of breast cancer and support overall health and wellness. In contrast, genetic risk factors are beyond one’s control and may require additional screening depending on your risk level.
Common Genetic Risk Factors
Aging increases the risk of breast cancer development. On average, women between the ages of 45-55 are at a higher risk of developing breast cancer. Furthermore, the risk of invasive breast cancer increases after 55.
Dense Breast Tissue
Having dense breast tissue makes it difficult to achieve proper readings during mammograms. Consequently, this allows cancer cells to hide in the fatty tissue and go undetected. Which delays early diagnosis. To learn more about dense breast tissue, cancer risk, and proper screening, check out this article What To Know About Dense Breast Tissue by Medical News Today.
Specific gene mutations can increase the risk of cancer. BRCA-1 and BRCA-2 are associated with a higher chance of breast cancer development. Additionally, mutations in the TP53 gene are linked with increased risk.
Waiting to start your family later in life may increase your risk of breast cancer. Typically, those that give birth after 35 are at a higher risk.
Not Having Children
On the other end of the spectrum, women that have never been pregnant (such as myself) or those that haven’t had a full-term pregnancy are at a higher risk.
A Prior Family History or Health History
A family history of breast cancer in which a close female relative has breast cancer contributes to an increased risk. If your mother, grandmother, sister, or daughter had breast cancer, your chances are elevated. However, it’s still possible to contract breast cancer without a family history. Additionally, having breast cancer before increases the risk of it coming back.
Late-Onset of Menopause
Beginning menopause at 55 or greater can increase your cancer risk—the reason for this has to due with prolonged exposure to estrogen. Furthermore, starting menstruation early, before age 12, also increases breast cancer risk.
Undergoing hormonal therapy such as hormone replacement therapy (HRT), bioidentical hormone replacement therapy (BHRT), or taking birth control pills can increase your cancer risk. In the case of HRT, estrogen and progesterone therapy is associated with an increased risk.
Fact #4: There Are Different Types of Breast Cancer
There are various types of breast cancer that range from noninvasive to invasive. More invasive breast cancer forms involve cancer cells spreading beyond the breast tissue into the body’s lymph nodes and other parts. Examples of invasive breast cancer types are inflammatory breast cancer (IBC), Triple Negative, and Metastatic.
Inflammatory breast cancer is rare and affects 1-5% of patients. However, it can progress quickly and is considered to be quite aggressive. In the case of triple-negative breast cancer, 10-20% of patients will contract this cancer type. Furthermore, it’s challenging to treat using hormonal therapy since it fails to respond to this type of treatment. Lastly, metastatic breast cancer is another name ascribed to stage 4 breast cancer. And it involves cancer spreading from the breast to other areas in the body.
Noninvasive forms of breast cancer affect the ducts, lobules, and breast tissue where cancer cells initially formed.
Fact #5: Breast Cancer Has 5 Stages
Breast cancer is classified into five different stages based on how invasive or noninvasive it is, the size of the tumor, the lymph nodes’ involvement, and its spread to nearby organs.
In this particular stage, cancer cells remain in the breast ducts.
This stage is comprised of two levels stage 1A and 1B. In stage 1A, the primary tumor is 2cm or smaller, and the lymph nodes remain unaffected. Whereas in stage 1B, cancer cells are present in the lymph nodes, and there may be a small tumor.
This stage contains two levels as well called 2A and 2B. 2A includes a tumor that’s 2cm or smaller and spreads to 1-3 lymph nodes. It may also have 2-5cm tumors that haven’t spread to the lymph nodes. However, in 2B, a 2-5 cm tumor has spread to 1-3 armpit lymph nodes. Or, it may have a more massive tumor measuring around 5cm that hasn’t spread to the lymph nodes.
This is the only stage of breast cancer that has three levels. These levels are known as 3A, 3B, and 3C. Stage 3A has spread to 4-9 armpit lymph nodes or contains an enlarged mammary lymph node where the primary tumor is of any size. In stage 3B, the tumor invades the chest wall or skin and may or may not invade up to 9 lymph nodes. Finally, stage 3C is when cancer is found in 10 or more armpit lymph nodes, collarbone lymph nodes, or internal mammary lymph nodes.
In this final stage, the tumor is of any size, with cancer cells spreading to nearby and distant lymph nodes as well as distant organs.
Fact #6: Imaging Tests and Biopsies Help With Diagnosis
The first step in diagnosing breast cancer is to receive a proper examination with your doctor. They will examine the breasts and observe if there’s lumps or abnormalities present. You may be instructed to sit or stand with your arms above your head or at your side. This enables them to examine the breasts effectively.
Additionally, they may recommend an imaging test. Imaging tests allow the doctor to see what’s going on inside the breast. Standard imaging tests include mammograms, ultrasound, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Consequently, if there are abnormalities or lumps detected during the physical examination or imaging tests, your doctor will want to perform a biopsy. A biopsy is when a tissue sample is taken from the breast to determine if it’s cancerous. Furthermore, it can identify cancer type, stage, and sensitivity to hormones. This provides helpful feedback for diagnosing and treating breast cancer.
Fact #7: You Have Treatment Options
There are a variety of factors that must be considered when treating breast cancer. However, key factors such as the cancer’s type and stage, its sensitivity to hormones, age, the current state of health, and personal preferences influence decisions regarding your treatment plan. According to these factors, your doctor will determine what treatments you’re a candidate for. Standard treatment options are radiation therapy, surgery, hormone therapy, targeted drug therapy, and chemotherapy.
When it comes to surgery for breast cancer, there are various options. Furthermore, the cancer stage and type will determine which surgical options will be best. Types of surgery are lumpectomy, mastectomy, sentinel node biopsy, axillary lymph node dissection, and breast reconstruction.
Two of the most commonly known types of surgery are lumpectomy and mastectomy. A lumpectomy focuses on removing the tumor and the tissue surrounding it. Generally, this type of surgery is best for small tumors and helps prevent cancer progression. In the case of mastectomy, there are a variety of options. However, with the simple mastectomy, the lobules, ducts, fatty tissue, nipple, areola, and some skin are removed. The surgeon may also elect to remove the lymph nodes and muscle in the chest wall as well. To learn more about different types of mastectomy, check out this article by Medical News Today. And to learn more about the other surgical options, I mentioned you may want to read this article What to Know About Breast Cancer—another fantastic piece by Medical News Today.
Fact #8: Breast Cancer Prevention Is Still Relevant
While there’s no concrete way to prevent breast cancer, you can implement healthy choices in your daily life that decrease your overall risk. For instance, focusing on a sustainable lifestyle approach to wellness is beneficial for disease and cancer prevention. Maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly, monitoring alcohol consumption, and consuming an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant-rich diet are great ways to improve your health and prevent cancer.
However, if you’re at an increased risk of breast cancer due to family history or prior history of breast cancer, discussing additional prevention options with your doctor is imperative. You may want to look into yearly mammograms, yearly imaging tests such as ultrasound or MRI, undergoing genetic counseling/testing, taking medicines to decrease risk, or having preventative surgery. What you decide will depend on what is best for you, your individual health, and your personal preferences.
Fact #9: You’re Not Required to Have A Mammogram at 40
The general recommendation is once you’re 45 years old, you should start having yearly mammograms. And, once you’re 55, you can transition to having one every 2 years. However, if you’re at an increased risk for breast cancer, you may prefer to begin breast cancer screening and mammograms earlier. Again this is a discussion that you should have with your doctor in which you undergo a risk assessment and decide what’s best for your individual health.
Fact #10: Genetic Testing & Counseling Helps High-Risk Patients
Genetic testing is designed for those with an increased risk of breast cancer. Specifically, if you have a mother, sister, or daughter with breast cancer or prior history of breast cancer or ovarian cancer. In this case, a genetic test, called the BRCA gene test, can help assess your risk. This test involves having a blood test that analyzes DNA to identify inherited gene mutations that increase your breast cancer susceptibility. If you test negative, these gene mutations aren’t present or you don’t have specific gene mutations at the time of the test. On the other hand, testing positive means the gene mutations associated with breast cancer are present in your blood, thereby increasing your risk. As I mentioned earlier in the post, these genes are known as BRCA-1 and BRCA-2.
Another consideration would be to combine genetic testing with genetic counseling. Doing so can help you determine if genetic testing is a good option for you, and it can help you decide which tests to take. Furthermore, it can help you interpret the results and determine the next steps for prevention.
Fact #11: Self-Breast Exams Aren’t Recommended Anymore
The American Cancer Society no longer recommends women of average risk at any age to perform monthly self-breast examinations. Furthermore, clinical breast exams are not mandatory for women with average risk. These changes are due to a lack of concrete evidence that performing these particular screening exams impacted a reduction in breast cancer death.
However, monitoring your breasts for changes in appearance, shape, abnormalities, or common breast cancer symptoms is still necessary. Remaining vigilant in this way can help with early detection. Additionally, if you are at an increased risk for breast cancer, you may not want to discontinue self-breast checks or clinical breast examinations from your doctor. Discuss with your physician what procedures and screening protocols should be followed according to your health history and risk factor.
Fact #12: Personal Care Products Don’t Increase Cancer Risk
Over the years, there has been growing concern regarding personal care products and cosmetics contributing to disease and cancer. Aluminum and parabens are two popular ingredients that have been thought to contribute to breast cancer development. In the case of aluminum, the theory was it could be absorbed into the body via razor nicks caused by shaving. Another view was toxic ingredients from deodorant could penetrate into the skin via pores in the armpit. Due to aluminum preventing perspiration and natural detoxification, these toxins would build up in the lymph nodes and become cancerous. However, there’s a lack of research backing up this theory.
As for parabens, studies have shown a weak estrogen-like property in parabens that can mimic estrogen within the body. Additionally, studies have revealed that parabens were found in human breast tumors—specifically methylparaben. Despite their presence in breast tumors, researchers have failed to link parabens to breast cancer development. But, if you have an increased cancer risk or feel uncomfortable using parabens, you can always avoid products containing this particular ingredient.
Bonus Fact: Male Breast Cancer is Real
Although rare, men can also get breast cancer. Believe it or not, men have breast tissue similar to women. But, they have a lot less breast tissue than women, which decreases their risk. On average less than 1% of males get breast cancer. Of that 1%, White men are 100 times less likely to get breast cancer than white women. And, Black men are 70 times less likely to get breast cancer than Black women.
The small percentage of males who do get breast cancer will experience the same symptoms as women patients and require the exact diagnosis and treatment protocols.
The truth of the matter is that…
I could create an endless list of different breast cancer facts, but this post would be a million pages long. I hope that I was able to increase your awareness about breast cancer so that you realize why breast cancer screening and discussing your risk with your doctor is necessary. Doing so can help with detecting it at an early stage and improve recovery and survival odds. Knowing more about genetic counseling and genetic testing can help identify if you’re at an increased risk of breast cancer. Which can help you decide what preventative measures can be taken to safeguard your future health. While it’s impossible to guarantee that you can entirely prevent it, knowing what to do to advocate for your health and be aware of these things gives you the power to handle and manage your health, regardless of what the future holds.