Breast cancer at a glance
- Breast cancer starts when abnormal cells in the breast begin to grow out of control and usually form a tumor.
- Women are most likely to develop breast cancer, but it is also possible for a male to develop it.
- The cancer can often be seen in an X-ray that is collected during a mammogram or felt as a lump.
- Anova Cancer Care treats breast cancer with CyberKnife robotic radiosurgery.
What is breast cancer?
Breast cancer is a disease that starts in the breast from a mass of cells that grows out of control causing a malignant tumor.
After skin cancer, breast cancer is the most common cancer diagnosed in women in the United States. According to the American Cancer Society, the average risk of a woman in the U.S. developing this form of cancer sometime in her life is around 12 percent. That is a 1 in 8 chance a woman will develop the disease.
While it can occur both in men and women, breast cancer is far more prevalent in women, with males accounting for less than 1 percent of cases. In recent years thanks to research, the survival rates have increased. This is largely due to earlier detection, personalized treatment and a better understanding of the disease.
The American Cancer Society states there are more than 3.1 million breast cancer survivors in the U.S. This number includes those who have completed treatment or are still being treated.
What causes breast cancer?
Doctors have learned that this cancer occurs when some breast cells begin to grow abnormally. These cells divide faster than healthy cells and will accumulate, causing a mass or lump. Breast cancer cells can metastasize (spread) to other parts of the body. Breast cancer cells most often begin in the milk-producing ducts.
Research has found that environmental, lifestyle and hormonal factors may increase the risk. It is estimated that gene mutations inherited by generations in a family account for about 5-10 percent of cases. The most well-known gene mutations that cause the disease are BRCA1 and BRCA2, which also increase the risk of ovarian cancer.
Factors that may put a woman at a higher risk for this form of cancer include:
- Personal or family history of it.
- Increasing age.
- Exposure to radiation.
- Starting her period at a younger age.
- Beginning menopause at an older age.
- Having never been pregnant.
- Having her first child at a late age.
- Taking postmenopausal hormone therapy.
- Drinking alcohol.
Women shouldn’t panic if they have more than one of those risks. That does not mean a woman will get the disease, but it does mean her chances are higher than for women who have no risk factors or only a few.
Reducing the chances
There are some steps men and women can take to reduce the risk of breast cancer if they are concerned. Some risk factors mentioned above cannot be changed such as family history. However, by following the below lifestyle changes, the chance of getting this type of cancer can be lowered.
- Women in particular should perform self-exams monthly and look for changes or lumps. If anything is unusual, they should contact a doctor promptly.
- Women should talk to a doctor about when to begin breast screening exams and tests.
- Drink alcohol in moderation or not at all.
- Women should limit postmenopausal hormone therapy.
- Avoid exposure to radiations and environmental pollution.
- Exercise for at least 30 minutes most days of the week.
- Eat a healthy diet.
- Maintain a healthy weight.
When the cancer is caught early and has not spread, it is easier to treat. That is why it is so important to know the symptoms and check for them. The most recognizable symptom of breast cancer is a lump or mass on the breast or underarm. But that is not the only symptom, others to be aware of are:
- Change in the skin, such as redness, swelling and dimpling.
- Change in the shape, size, color or appearance of the breast.
- Redness or pitting in the breast skin (looks similar to the skin of an orange).
- Nipple discharge in women other than breast milk.
- Change in the appearance of the nipple.
- A newly inverted nipple.
- General pain in or on any part of the breast.
- Itchy breasts.
- Peeling, scaling, crusting or flaking of the pigmented area of skin surrounding the nipple or breast skin.
How is this cancer diagnosed?
The following tests and procedures are completed by an OB/GYN or cancer specialist to diagnose breast cancer.
- Physical breast exam. The doctor will check both breasts and the lymph nodes in the armpits, feeling for any lumps or abnormalities.
- Mammogram. A mammogram is an X-ray of the breast. The American Cancer Society recommends that women without a family or personal history of this type of cancer should have the choice to start annual mammogram screenings at age 40 to 44; women 45 to 54 should get a mammogram every year; and women 55 and older should switch to a mammogram every two years.
- Breast ultrasound. The ultrasound uses sound waves to produce images to determine if a lump is a solid mass or a fluid-filled cyst.
- Biopsy of breast cells. A doctor will remove a sample from the area of the suspicious breast cells and send it to a laboratory for testing. The lab will determine if the cells are cancerous, the grade of the cancer, the type of cells involved in the cancer and if the cells have hormone receptors that could influence treatment.
- Breast MRI. A magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine along with a dye injection is used to create pictures of the interior of the breast.
Waiting for results
While waiting for results of the tests, it is understandable if it weighs heavily on a woman’s or a man’s mind. When waiting, keep in mind that only about 20 percent of all breast tumors are cancerous, most cancerous tumors are highly treatable and cancer treatments are continuing to improve.
Learning about results
Once a woman has been diagnosed with the disease, the next step is to establish the stage of the cancer. This will help determine the prognosis and best treatment options. Breast cancer stages range from 0 to IV, with 0 being that the cancer was caught early and it has not spread from where it started. Stage IV means that the cancer has metastasized away from the breast spreading to areas such as the bones, liver, brain or lungs.
CyberKnife treatment for breast cancer
Patients in early-stage breast cancer can choose CyberKnife treatment as an alternative to surgery or to be used after a lumpectomy. Despite its name, CyberKnife does not use a knife, but rather it is a robotic radiosurgery system that kills the cancerous cells using targeted radiation therapy.
A 2017 study looked at women with stage 0, I or II breast cancer with a tumor that was three centimeters or less who were treated only by CyberKnife. It found no recurrences or distant metastases at median follow-up of 26 months. After two years, more than 95 percent of patients and 100 percent of physicians rated the appearance of the breast as excellent or good following treatment.