Breast cancer is the commonest type of cancer affecting women worldwide. It is often described as an autonomous proliferation of the cells of the breast with the ability to spread to other vital organs of the body especially the opposite breast, lungs, brain, bones and the liver.
The breast is a reproductive/ beautifying organ found in both men and women. However, its growth is marked in females and it is controlled by hormones especially estrogen. Estrogen stimulates the breast to grow which is seen during puberty with further growth during menstruation and during pregnancy. Although breast cancer is commoner in women, cases of breast cancer have been recorded in men.
Causes and risk factors
Till date, the exact cause of breast cancer is unknown, but several risk factors have been associated with the disease in women. They include:
· Age: this is an important risk factor because the risk of developing breast cancer increases with age. The incidence rises steadily from 30 to 75 years
· Gender: breast cancer is 5 times more common in females than in men.
· Race: breast cancer incidence is higher among Caucasians than in Africans or Asians, but the disease is usually more aggressive in Africans
· Family history: breast cancer tends to run in families. A woman whose grandmother, mother, aunt, or sister, i.e. a first-degree relative, has had the disease is at greater risk (twice the incidence) of developing breast cancer. The risk is even higher if two or more close relatives are affected
· Age of first pregnancy and nulliparity. The age of first pregnancy is important, those having their first child at 18 or less being more protected than those having it after 25. The risk of postmenopausal carcinoma is tripled when the first birth occurs after 35 years. Nulliparity increases the risk and unmarried nulliparous women have a greater risk than those who are married.
· Age of menarche and menopause: this is another important risk factor, women with early onset of menstruation and late menopausal are more likely to develop breast cancer
· Lifestyle/ diet: Excessive intake of fatty meals, excessive alcohol consumption, smoking of tobacco and obesity have been linked to increase the risk of developing breast cancer
· Exposure to ionizing radiation from x-rays or occupational hazard.
· Painless breast lump
· Late stage may have swollen breast, redness of the breast, pain and itching
· Blood stained nipple discharge
· Disorder of the nipple which may include retraction, elevation, deviation or destruction
· Abdominal distension from spread to the liver
· Anorexia, nausea, and vomiting, generalized body weakness
· Other symptoms suggestive of spread to organs. Lungs (chest pain, difficulty in breathing and cough), bone (bone pain and fractures) and the brain (dizziness, headaches, seizures and coma)
The treatment for breast cancer depends on factors like the stage of the disease, age of the patient, type of breast cancer, the extent of spread, general condition of the patient, treatment available and the presence of skilled medical personnel. However, treatment involves the combination of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiotherapy.
· Surgery: this is usually the mainstay of treatment. It involves the removal of part or whole of the breast affected with cancer. It rapidly reduces the cancer burden on the patient
· Chemotherapy: this is the use of drugs which targets and destroys the cancer cells. It is important to note that these drugs also target normal cells hence its side effects.
· Radiotherapy: this involves the use of radiation therapy to target and destroy the cancer cells. It gives a more localized treatment than chemotherapy.
As it is commonly said, “prevention is better than cure”, breast lumps can be detected early by performing a simple self-breast examination monthly. This simple examination significantly increases the chance for early diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer.
· It is best performed in the 7th to 10th day after menses. For post-menopausal women or women who had hysterectomy, a specific day in a month should be selected and adhered
· It is generally advised that a BSE is performed while taking a bath and the patient should stand in front of a full-length mirror
· With the right arm behind the head, the palm of the left hand is used to feel for any lumps in the right breast. It is best to work your way from the nipple area.
· The same technique is repeated for the left breast
· Any lumps, unusual nipple discharge or finding should be reported to your physician for expert management.
It is not enough to read about breast cancer, many have read but are still carrying its cell around without knowing. Take steps today to check up for breast cancer. Let’s stop this rapid destroyer of life.