Breast cancer is the uncontrolled malignant
growth of cells in the breast tissue. There are many types
of breast cancers, those that form in the milk glands, in
the ducts that carry milk, in the fatty area or in the
connective tissue of the breast.
Cancer of the milk ducts is the most
commonly occurring form of breast cancer. Usually only one
breast is affected. There is a rare type of breast cancer in
which the breast becomes red and swollen and resembles
infection of the breast.
How is it caused?
The exact reason for the cancerous growth of
cells is not known. There are certain factors that do not
cause cancers by themselves, but make a person more at risk
for the development of cancer. These risk factors may be
genetic or environmental in nature:
Cancer tends to run in families. The
risk for cancer increases for a person if one or more of
his family members suffer from the disease.
Genetic predisposition that is, a
person may carry genes that make certain normal cells
Women who begin menstruating before the
age of 12 years or stop after 55 years are more at risk
for developing breast cancer.
Women who have not borne children or
have had children late in their life (usually after the
age of 30) are also more at risk.
Obesity or overweight is a condition
that is associated with an increased risk of breast
Other factors like excessive drinking
of alcohol and lack of exercise are also risk factors for
Environmental factors like exposure to
harmful radiation, cigarette smoke over a long period of
time and pesticides also increases the risk.
In some cases, women who undergo
hormone replacement therapy have an increased risk of
cancer of the breast.
What are the symptoms?
The most common symptom of cancer of the
breast is the presence of a lump in the breast. The patient
herself often detects the lump either accidentally or during
a routine self-examination. The lump is usually painless and
hard. Sometimes, there may be changes in the shape and size
of the breast and the nipple.
A dimple in the skin overlying the breast
accompanied with dryness and scaling should be a cause for
concern. There may be discharge of blood stained fluid from
the nipple along with dryness and cracking of the skin of
How is it diagnosed?
A breast lump is usually first
detected by a woman on self examination. This procedure
should be regularly done by all women over the age of 40
years. In this procedure, the woman lies down, raises the
arm on the side of the breast and feels the breast with the
other hand. Any difference from in the normal feel of the
breast is noted. The woman may then look at herself in the
mirror and note any changes in the shape and size of her
breasts. Any change should be brought to the doctor’s
The doctor may palpate or feel the breast for any unusual
lumps or any other signs. In case a lump is detected by the
doctor, mammography may be done. This is a special X-ray of
the breast. It can detect early breast cancers and gives a
fairly accurate picture of any changes in the breast. Any
spots that show up in the mammogram are then further
analysed by a biopsy. In this procedure, a small part of the
lump tissue is taken for laboratory testing. The biopsy can
also be done in many ways. In some cases, a small needle may
be inserted into the lump and a small portion of the fluid
may be taken.
In another form of biopsy, a small cut may be made on the
breast to get to the lump, a piece of which is then taken
for testing. In some cases, the entire lump may be removed.
The procedure followed is decided by the doctor keeping in
mind the patient’s history.
In case cancer of the breast is confirmed, other tests may
be done to look for spread of the disease. These include
blood tests, X-rays and ultrasound scan of the abdomen. In
some cases a bone scan may be done.
What is the treatment of breast
Since the breast is not an organ
that is necessary for survival, it is generally removed by a
surgical procedure called mastectomy. In some cases only the
lump is removed, in others the whole breast is removed.
Later, the patient may be given radiotherapy. This procedure
helps to destroy the cancerous cells without harming the
neighbouring tissue. If the cancer has spread to other parts
of the body as well, chemotherapy using drugs like
vincritine, adriamycin and cyclophosphamide is
done. In some cases, hormonal treatment using tamoxifen
is advised. Usually a combination of all of these
procedures is followed for complete treatment. In most
cases, if the cancer is detected early and treated
appropriately, breast cancer patients can usually lead a
cancer free life
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