October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month
Photo by Klaus Nielsen: https://www.pexels.com/photo/person-holding-a-poster-6303696/
Cancer is the abnormal growth of cells in the body. In a healthy body, cells grow and divide, but they can also grow old, get injured, or die. When cells age and die, they are replaced by new, healthy cells in a continual cycle of renewal. Cancerous growths will begin as unhealthy cells which continue to replicate themselves with no need for them and without following the patterns of healthy cells. When these cells build up enough, they form tumors.
Breast cancer occurs when these abnormal cells develop in the breast. A breast consists of three main parts: the lobules, the ducts, and the connective tissue. The lobules and ducts ensure that a woman can produce milk and release it through glands in the nipples. Connective tissues surround the other parts, holding them together. Most breast cancer begins in either the lobules or ducts, but it can also develop in the connective tissue.
Tumors are classified as being either benign or malignant. A benign tumor is rarely life-threatening because they do not spread to surrounding tissues. In other words, when benign tumors are removed, they do not grow back. A tumor is classified as malignant when it shows signs of spreading to other parts of the body, often through blood vessels and lymph vessels. This type of tumor may return after initial removal or treatments and is likely to continue growing and metastasizing (spreading) through the body. Cancer cells that have metastasized may attach themselves to other parts of the body, while still being abnormal breast cells.
Risk Factors of Breast Cancer
Breast cancer is not contagious and does not occur as the result of an external bump or bruise. While researchers do not know the exact causes of breast cancer yet, research has highlighted certain risk factors which can make a person more likely to develop it. Some of these factors are preventable, while others are the results of aging. These include:
Age: The risk of developing breast cancer increases with age. Most women are diagnosed above the age of 60. This is why breast cancer screenings (mammograms) are recommended for all women above the age of 45.
Family health history: Your risk of breast cancer is almost doubled if one of your immediate family members (mother, sister, or daughter) has had a similar diagnosis.
Lifestyle: Women who are physically inactive in their daily lives may have an increased risk of developing breast cancer. This also applies to women who are overweight or obese once they pass menopause. Certain lifestyle choices, like drinking alcohol, also increases the risk of cancer.
Reproductive and menstrual health: The following instances describe when women are more likely to develop breast cancer:
Having a child at an advanced maternal age (above 35 years old),
Having your first menstrual period before reaching age 12,
Experiencing menopause before the age of 55,
Taking menopausal hormone therapy.
Symptoms of Breast Cancer
While symptoms may not appear in the earliest stages, they typically manifest as the tumor grows. If you are experiencing any of the following symptoms, contact CHCC's Oncology Center at (670) 234-8950 and ask to be screened for breast cancer.
A lump or a patch of skin that is thicker than normal on or near your breast, or in the underarm area,
A change in your breast's size or shape,
The skin of your breast dimpling or puckering (this may look like the skin of an orange, which is not smooth and takes on a strange texture),
A nipple that suddenly inverts (turns itself inwards),
Scaliness, redness, or swelling on the breast, nipple, or the areola.
Treatment Options for Breast Cancer
Surgery is the most common method used to treat breast cancer. The process involves going under general anesthesia while a surgeon removes the tumor (clump of abnormal cells). This can take two forms: breast-sparing surgery or a mastectomy.
Breast-sparing surgery can be used for tumors that have not metastasized and involves only removing the tumor itself. With this type of surgery, most of the breast will not be removed.
A mastectomy is the surgical removal of as much of the breast tissue as possible. This type of treatment may be used when the tumor has grown too large to control with other methods. Some women opt to have both breasts (healthy or not) removed simultaneously in a double mastectomy to prevent any form of recurrence.
Radiation therapy uses high-energy rays to kill and stop the growth of cancerous cells. While radiation therapy is very effective to kill cancer cells, it will also affect healthy cells in the surrounding areas. The more common form of radiation therapy is called external radiation therapy, which involves the use of a machine to direct radiation at the part of the body where the cancer is growing. The rest of the body will be protected under a lead-lined blanket or smock.
Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. These drugs are usually given through an IV (direct tube into a blood vessel) or in the form of a pill. The drugs used for chemotherapy are designed to slow down or stop fast-growing cancer cells, but it will also impact healthy cells -- the most affected healthy cells are typically blood cells, the cells that line your digestive tract, and cells in the roots of hair. This is the reason people receiving chemotherapy typically experience nausea and hair loss.
Hormone therapy is an option when lab tests show the tumor has developed hormone receptors. This form of treatment prevents cancer cells from getting (or using) the body's supply of natural hormones (estrogen or progesterone) that the cells need to grow and multiply.
Life with Breast Cancer
Some women who have opted for a mastectomy may want to reconstruct the appearance of their breasts. Other women may not want to. Both of these opinions are completely valid, but different options are available for women who would like to regain the appearance of breasts.
Some women prefer to wear breast forms (prosthesis) inside their normal bras and have this as an external option. Others may decide to talk to their surgeon about breast implants at the time of their mastectomy. Another option is to reconstruct the breasts using tissues from other parts of the body. Your cancer care team will be able to give more information on the best options for you.
Nutrition and Physical Activity
Taking care of your body before, during, and after your cancer treatment is essential to keeping up your overall health. Discuss your nutrition with a dietician to keep yourself at a good weight and to ensure you are getting the right nutrients to keep your strength up.
Many women with breast cancer find that they feel their best when they are being active. Exercise is known to help alleviate nausea and pain, which can make receiving treatments (like chemotherapy) easier. Talk to your doctor before starting an exercise regimen, as certain activities are more highly recommended than others. These activities include yoga, swimming, and walking.
Once you have finished with your treatments, and entered the monitoring phase of your cancer journey, you will need to continue visiting your doctor for regular checkups.
These checkups will allow your medical team to monitor any changes in your health and to treat them as needed. Doctors will be on the look-out for signs that the cancer has returned and for health problems that can result from your treatment. It is imperative you report any changes in your health to your doctor.
Checkups will usually include a physical exam of your neck, underarms, chest, and breast areas. They also include regular mammograms or other imaging procedures to ensure the cancer has not returned.
Cancer changes your life, and it can affect the lives of your family and close friends. It is normal to seek help when it comes to coping with these changes. The CCA organizes support groups for cancer survivors and their caregivers to foster a sense of community for survivors. These monthly meetings give you and your family a safe space to share your experience and to process any feelings you have about your journey with cancer.
Being a part of a community with shared experiences can help reduce feelings of loneliness and gives you a forum for giving and receiving advice, comfort, companionship, and hope.