Breast Cancer: Everything You Need to Know, from Diagnosis to Prevention

Breast Cancer: Everything You Need to Know, from Diagnosis to Prevention

Breast cancer is a significant public health concern, affecting individuals worldwide. In India, the incidence of breast cancer has been steadily increasing in recent years. According to the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), breast cancer is now the most common cancer among Indian women. In fact, recent estimates [1] suggest that approximately 1.5 lakh new cases are diagnosed each year. This data is a stark reminder of the urgency to address this issue and raise awareness about early detection and prevention.

Here’s everything you need to know about the condition, along with effective prevention tips and the importance of screening.

Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Treatment Options

Early detection is crucial for effective breast cancer treatment. Being aware of the common symptoms and seeking medical attention promptly can make a significant difference in treatment outcomes. Remember, breast cancer is successfully treatable when detected and treated early. The symptoms of breast cancer include:

  • Lump(s) or thickening in the breast or underarm
  • Change in the size, shape, or appearance of the breast
  • Unexplained pain in the breast or nipple
  • Nipple discharge other than breast milk
  • Skin changes on the breast, such as redness, dimpling, or scaling

If you notice any of these symptoms, you should visit your family physician to discuss the cause of these symptoms further.

The diagnosis of breast cancer typically involves a combination of methods, including a clinical breast exam, mammography, ultrasound, and biopsy.

Once diagnosed, your treatment options can vary depending on the stage and type of cancer. They may include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, targeted therapy, Immunotherapy and hormonal therapy. Further, your treatment plan will, most likely, be tailored to your specific diagnosis, and it is crucial to discuss all available options with your medical team to make informed decisions.

Screening, and why it is Important

Breast cancer, like many other cancers, can be a silent killer. You might not notice symptoms of the disease for several months or years before it is detected. This is why regular screening is imperative to detect cancer early. When detected early, breast cancer is more likely to have successful treatment outcomes and very high cure rates.

The goal of screening is to detect cancer before it causes symptoms, making it easier to treat and potentially preventing it from spreading.

As per the American Cancer Society, a woman should start screening for breast cancer with mammograms, every year starting at age 40[2]. Women at high risk for breast cancer, such as those individuals with strong family history of breast cancer may need to start screening earlier. While, this is a general recommendation, it is important to talk to your doctor about when you should start screening for breast cancer based on your individual risk factors.

The best way to screen for breast cancer is by performing regular breast self-exams and getting a mammogram once every year. But if you notice any of the symptoms mentioned above, you should visit your doctor immediately to get them investigated.

Importance of Breast Self-Exams

Breast self-exams are a simple yet powerful tool to detect breast cancer early. Conducting regular breast self-exams can help you become familiar with your body, helping you notice any changes as soon as they occur. Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to perform a breast self-exam:

  • Stand in front of a mirror and inspect your breasts for any visible changes, such as dimpling, puckering, or changes in the nipple’s position.
  • Raise your arms above your head and look for the same changes.
  • Lie down and use your opposite hand to feel your breast using a circular motion, checking for lumps or abnormalities.
  • Repeat the process for the other breast.

Performing breast self-exams should become a monthly routine, preferably a few days after your menstrual cycle. If you notice any changes or have concerns, consult a healthcare professional for further evaluation.

Risk factors:

Certain factors can increase your risk of developing breast cancer. Being aware of these risk factors can help you make informed lifestyle choices and consider regular screenings earlier than recommended. Some common risk factors include:

  • Age: The risk of breast cancer increases with age, particularly after 40.
  • Family history: A family history of breast cancer can raise your risk, especially if close relatives have had the disease.
  • Genetic mutations: Inherited genetic mutations, such as BRCA1 and BRCA2, can significantly increase your risk of developing breast cancer. Getting tested for this gene mutation is paramount, especially if you have a family history of the disease.
  • Hormone replacement therapy: Long-term use of hormone replacement therapy may increase your risk of breast cancer as well. It is best to speak to your treating physician about this if you have any concerns.
  • Reproductive factors: Early menstruation, late menopause, and having children at an older age can all raise your risk of developing breast cancer.
  • Excessive alcohol consumption: Regular, heavy alcohol consumption may also increase your risk of breast cancer.
  • Obesity: Being overweight or obese can also raise your risk of developing breast cancer. Having a high amount of body fat or adipose tissue can lead to the release of high levels of estrogen, which has been linked to an increased risk of breast, endometrial, ovarian, and some other cancers.

Understanding these risk factors is essential for making lifestyle choices and seeking appropriate screenings, especially if several risk factors apply to you.

Tips for prevention:

Preventing breast cancer is not always possible, but there are steps you can take to reduce your risk and promote breast health:

  • Maintain a healthy lifestyle: Eating a healthy and nutritious diet, exercising regularly and maintaining a healthy weight can all help prevent or delay the onset of breast cancer.
  • Limit alcohol consumption: If you do drink alcohol, do so in moderation.
  • Breastfeeding: If possible, breastfeed your children, as it can reduce the risk of breast cancer.
  • Get regular screenings: This is especially true if you have any of the above-mentioned risk factors. Even otherwise, you should start screening for the disease once you reach the age of 40.
  • Know and understand your family history: Be aware of your family’s cancer history and discuss it with your healthcare provider.
  • Undergo genetic testing: If you have a strong family history of breast cancer, consider genetic counselling and testing for the BRACA1 and BRACA2 genes.
  • Speak up about hormone therapy: Discuss the risks and benefits of hormone replacement therapy with your physician, if you are on this form of treatment.
  • Do regular breast self-exams: Conduct regular breast self-exams and promptly report any changes or concerns.

The Importance of Early Detection

Breast cancer is a formidable adversary, but with early detection and timely intervention, it can be treated successfully. Regular screenings, being awareness of the symptoms, and self-exams are powerful tools in the battle against breast cancer. Equally important is having a support network of family and loved ones who understand the significance of early detection and encourage regular check-ups.

In conclusion, remember that early detection saves lives. Spread awareness about the importance of breast health, be proactive in monitoring your own well-being, and encourage your loved ones to do the same. By working together and staying informed, we can make significant strides in the fight against breast cancer and improve the chances of a brighter, healthier future.

References: 

[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8966510/

[2]https://www.cancer.org/cancer/screening/american-cancer-society-guidelines-for-the-early-detection-of-cancer.html#:~:text=Women%20ages%2040%20to%2044,or%20can%20continue%20yearly%20screening.

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