Breast cancer is a form of cancer that occurs in the cells of the breast tissue. Interestingly, it can happen in both men and women but it is far more common in women. This is because the breast cells of women are exposed to the growth factors of estrogen and progesterone, much more so than the breast tissue in men.
After skin cancer, breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in women in the United States. These rates are falling in recent years and, with advances in technology and treatment protocols, survival rates are also increasing. Public support for breast cancer awareness and research funding has also helped to improve the ability of physicians to diagnose the problem and the awareness of women to do breast self-examinations. The number of deaths has been declining, and, thanks to early detection, stage one breast cancer now has an 88% survival rate or greater. (1)
These statistics are improving because of the awareness the public has about this particular disease and how to spot the early symptoms in order to initiate early treatment. Breast cancer cells will begin in the building blocks that make up the tissue, the cells. Normally, breast tissue will grow and divide as the body requires replenishing. When new cells grow the old ones die. Sometimes this orderly process goes wrong and the extra cells form a mass of tissue which we call a growth or tumor.
These tumors can be either benign or malignant. Benign tumors are not cancers, rarely life-threatening and can be removed without fear of growing back. The cells in a benign tumor will not invade the tissue that surrounds them and will not spread to other parts of the body. Breast cancer cells, or malignant tumors, are more serious than benign tumors and are life-threatening. While these tumors can be removed they will sometimes grow back and the cells will invade and damage nearby tissues and organs. When cells spread to other parts of the body it is called metastasis.
Symptoms of breast cancer can include a lump or thickening of the breast tissue that feels different from the surrounding tissue. Women may notice a bloody discharge from the nipple or a change in the size or shape of the nipple. Changes may occur in the skin over the breast, such as dimpling or the entire size and shape of a single breast may change. Another symptom of breast cancer is peeling or flaking of the skin over the nipple or redness or pitting of the skin over the breast. Women who have breast cancer may also notice pain in the nipple area or discharged other than milk. Pain in the area of the breast can also indicate breast cancer but is more rare. (2,3)
Each of these symptoms will be noted by a woman doing a breast exam on a monthly basis. Through early detection and therefore, early treatment, survival rates are steadily increasing. Public service announcements and media attention to breast cancer in women has increased over the past decade. Combined with the improvements in treatment modalities and the ability to preserve the breast tissue with treatment, more and more women are recognizing the advantages and enjoying the successes of breast self-examination, yearly mammograms and yearly examinations with their gynecologist.
(1) American Cancer Society: Cancer Survival Rates by Stage
(2) BreastCancer.org: Symptoms of Breast Cancer
(3) Center for Disease Control and Prevention: Breast Cancer Symptoms