October brings thoughts of fall, football games, tailgating and trick-or-treating. Colors shift to a warmer pallet; orange, brown, green and gold decorate many homes. Yet, one of the most popular colors in October is pink in honor of breast cancer awareness month.
Breast cancer develops from breast cells, usually beginning in the inner lining of the milk ducts or in the glands that supply them with milk; in a few instances, they grow in other parts of the breast. Tumors in the breast can grow slowly, taking years to become a size that can be felt, though some tumors are aggressive and can grow faster.
Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women. Though breast cancer ranks high in cancer deaths, it is very treatable if it is detected early.
Invasive breast cancer occurs when the abnormal cells in the breast break through and invade other parts of the breast or travel through the blood stream or lymphatic system to other parts of the body. This process of spreading through the body is called metastasis. Noninvasive breast cancer occurs when the abnormal cells remain in place and do not invade other parts of the body.
Although breast cancer is primarily a concern of women, men can and do develop breast cancer. Men account for about 1 percent of all breast cancer cases.
For women at normal risk for developing breast cancer, self-exams, clinical exams and mammograms beginning at age 40 screen for breast cancer. Women at higher risk or those who have had an abnormal test result might need earlier screening or tests.
If you notice any signs or symptoms or have questions regarding risk factors, prevention or treatment, discuss them with your doctor. Remember, knowledge is power.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: According to WebMD, some of the symptoms of breast cancer are:
• A lump in the breast or underarm that persists after your menstrual cycle. This is often the first apparent symptom of breast cancer. Lumps associated with breast cancer are usually painless, although some may cause a prickly sensation. Lumps are usually visible on a mammogram long before they can be seen or felt.
• Swelling in the armpit.
• Pain or tenderness in the breast. Although lumps are usually painless, pain or tenderness can be a sign of breast cancer.
• A noticeable flattening or indentation on the breast, which can indicate a tumor that cannot be seen or felt.
• Any change in the size, contour, texture, or temperature of the breast. A reddish, pitted surface like the skin of an orange could be a sign of advanced breast cancer.
• A change in the nipple, such as a nipple retraction, dimpling, itching, a burning sensation, or ulceration. A scaly rash of the nipple is symptomatic of Paget’s disease, which can be associated with an underlying breast cancer.
• Unusual discharge from the nipple. It’s usually caused by benign conditions but could be because of cancer in some cases.
• A marblelike area under the skin.
• An area that is distinctly different from any other area on either breast.
DIAGNOSIS: If a lump is found, have your doctor check it to see whether it is benign (noncancerous) or malignant (cancerous). Most lumps do not signal cancer, but the best way to distinguish between a cyst and a solid tumor is to do an ultrasound or a needle biopsy.
If breast cancer is diagnosed, it is important to know the cancer’s stage in order to discuss and decide on treatment. Several tests may be performed to stage the cancer. Those include: sentinel lymph node biopsy, chest x-ray, CT scan, bone scan and PET scan. The stages of breast cancer range from 0 to IV and depend on a combination of tumor size, lymph node status and metastasis. Typically, the higher the stage, the poorer the prognosis, so early detection is key to survival. Any time a lump is discovered or changes in the breast are noticed, see your doctor.
TREATMENT: Local breast cancer treatments include surgery, either a lumpectomy or a mastectomy. There are different types of both procedures, so discuss these in depth with your doctor. Radiation therapy might be used after surgery. This form of treatment uses radiation to kill cancer cells or to keep them from growing and dividing while minimizing damage to healthy cells.
Systemic treatment options are used to destroy or control the growth of cancer cells throughout the entire body and can be used either before or after local treatment. Systemic treatments include chemotherapy, hormone therapy and/or biologic therapy.
Great strides have been made in the diagnosing and treatment of breast cancer, and survivorship is on the rise. It is important to discuss the different forms of treatment with your doctor to choose the course that is right for you. Also, ask your doctor about clinical trials.
RISK FACTORS: According to Susan G. Komen (www.komen.org), risk factors for breast cancer include: being a woman, getting older, having an inherited BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation, having a personal history of breast or ovarian cancer, having a family history of breast cancer, having high breast density on a mammogram, having a previous biopsy showing hyperplasia, having a history of lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS), being exposed to large amounts of radiation at a young age, never having children, having your first child after age 35, having high levels of blood androgens or estrogens, using (current or recent use) menopausal hormones, being overweight after menopause or gaining weight as an adult, having high bone density, having more than one drink of alcohol per day, starting menopause after age 55, being younger than 12 at the time of your first period and taking (current or recent use) birth control pills.
It is important to note that even if you have none of the risk factors, you can still develop breast cancer. Talk to your doctor about your level of risk.
PREVENTION: Risk factors such as family history cannot be changed, but there are things you can do to help improve your chances of not developing breast cancer. Many prevention steps can also help you lead an overall healthier lifestyle. Limit alcohol intake, don’t smoke, control your weight, be physically active, breast feed, limit your dose and duration of hormone therapy and avoid exposure to radiation and environmental pollution. Eating a healthy diet can help you maintain a healthy weight, and maintain a healthy weight is a key factor in breast cancer prevention.
The most important thing you can do is to be vigilant about detection. Do monthly breast exams. Have a clinical exam on a regular basis and talk with your doctor about changes you notice.
ASSISTANCE: If you have been diagnosed with any form of cancer, the Savannah River Cancer Foundation can help. The foundation helps anyone residing in the South Carolina counties of Aiken, Allendale, Barnwell and Edgefield with any type of cancer being treated at any facility, regardless of age. Financial assistance is available for help with transportation to and from treatments and with cancer medication cost. The foundation also provides referrals to other organizations that provide assistance and maintains the Web site www.savannahrivercancer
foundation.org, which has cinformation and links to other cancer organizations.
The foundation also co-facilitates a support group for cancer patients, their families and caregivers on third Wednesdays (excluding December) from 3 to 4 p.m. in the parlor at Aiken’s First Baptist Church, 120 Chesterfield Street, NE. The support group allows attendees to share their experiences, exchange information about available resources and reinforce the sense that they are not alone in their journey to survivorship.
Financial assistance applications can be found on the foundation’s Web site, or patients can call (803) 649-LIFE (5433) to request an application by mail. The Savannah River Cancer Foundation is at 235 Barnwell Avenue, NW, Aiken, SC 29801. Office hours are 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Friday.
A physician should always be consulted for any health problem or medical condition.