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Second only to skin cancers, breast cancer is the most common cancer among American women.
Odds are you know someone who has battled breast cancer. Statistics show that one in eight women, or 12 percent, will develop invasive breast cancer in their lifetime. Second only to skin cancers, breast cancer is the most common cancer among American women. The American Cancer Society estimates that about 232,340 new cases will be diagnosed this year.
Black women have the highest death rate of all racial and ethnic groups, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They are 40 percent more likely to die than are white women. The American Cancer Society estimates that about 39,620 women will die from breast cancer this year.
But the news isn’t all gloom and doom, as of the year 2000, the number of breast cancer cases have gone down – thanks in part to a discovery of a link between hormone therapy used by women after menopause.
Advances in treatment are making a difference. Making screening available to low-income women also has played a part in upping the survival rate. More than 2.9 million breast cancer survivors are alive in the United States today.
October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The annual campaign focuses on breast cancer awareness and the importance of screenings. For more than 25 years, the campaign has worked to make finding a cure for breast cancer a top priority.
What is breast cancer?
Breast cancer occurs when a malignant tumor begins to grow in the cells of the breast. These cancer cells grow and can spread to surrounding tissues and then to other parts of the body. Breast cancer is most often detected as a lump, but other symptoms do occur, and not all lumps are cancerous.
The American Cancer Society says the best way to understand breast cancer is to learn the basics about the structure of female breasts, which are mostly milk-producing glands, called lobules, with tiny tubes, ducts, that carry the milk from the lobules to the nipples.
The rest is fatty tissue and connective tissue, called stroma, which surrounds the ducts, lobules, blood vessels and lymphatic vessels.
Ductal cancers are the most common and begin in the cells that line the ducts. Lobular cancers begin in the lobules, and rarer forms start in other tissues. Invasive forms occur when the cancer cells spread into other parts of the breast and parts of the body.
The lymph system is one way cancer spreads. The bean-shaped nodes hold immune system cells that aid the body’s ability to fight infection. The nodes are connected to the lymphatic vessels, which work like veins to carry the clean liquid lymph away from the breast.
Lymph contains tissue fluid and waste products, as well as immune cells, the American Cancer Society explains. When breast cancer cells enter lymphatic vessels, they can begin to grow in the lymph nodes. Most of the vessels connect to nodes located under the arm. Some vessels connect to nodes located inside the chest and others connect to nodes in areas above or below the collarbone.
Cancer cells that spread to the lymph nodes are more likely to make it to the bloodstream where they can spread to other parts of the body. Medical professionals refer to cancers that spread to other organs as metastasized.
Not all lumps are cancerous
Women who find a lump in their breast should remember that most are not cancerous. However, it is important to visit
your doctor to find out for sure. Lumps are often caused by cysts from fibrocystic disease, which may also include symptoms of swelling, tenderness or pain.
Some women develop non-cancerous tumors, which are non-life-threatening, but could be a sign of increased risk of developing breast cancer.
Lumps are only one symptom. Swelling and skin changes also could be clues that something is not right. Symptoms of inflammatory breast cancer, which is rare, include breast warmth, redness involving more than one-third of the breast, thickening and ridging of the skin. And, the nipple may become inverted. The skin often has a texture like an orange peel and one breast may feel heavier and be itchy, tender or painful.
But, many times, there are no symptoms at all, which is the main reason women are encouraged to do breast self-exams, get annual clinical exams and a mammogram starting between the age of 40 and 50.
The CDC lists a number of risk factors that could influence a woman’s chances of getting breast cancer, including:
• Starting menstruation at an early age • Entering menopause at a later age • Being older when you have your first child • Never giving birth • Never breastfeeding • Long-term use of hormone replacement therapy
Other factors include aging, personal medical history, family history of breast cancer, treatment with radiation therapy to the breast or chest, breast density, being overweight, drinking more than one alcoholic drink a day and an inactive lifestyle.
Women should talk to their doctor about risk factors and ways to lower the risk.
Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancer Week, Sept. 29-Oct. 5, calls attention to those who carry an inherited gene (BRCA gene) that may make them more likely to get breast or ovarian cancer.
“Hereditary cancer syndrome describes an inherited gene that increases the risk for one or more types of cancer,” according to FacingOurRisk.org.
One of the most telling signs you may have the gene is having a number of family members diagnosed with ovarian, fallopian tube or breast cancer, or family members who developed breast cancer before age 50 or family members with male breast cancer.
The American Cancer Society estimates that only about 2 percent of adult women in the United States carry the gene. The Society warns that the costly testing carries some risk and may not provide conclusive results.
Actress Angelina Jolie brought heightened attention to hereditary cancer and the BRCA gene when she decided to have her breasts surgically removed this summer. This preventive surgery sparked a big debate among the medical community since not every woman who has the BRCA will get breast cancer and removal of the breasts will not prevent women with the mutated gene from getting ovarian or fallopian tube cancer.
Some women with the BRCA gene choose to undergo chemoprevention, which is the use of drugs to reduce the cancer risk.
You should talk to your doctor if you think you may carry the gene to discuss the options.
Besides knowing your families’ medical history, early detection through regular medical exams, self-exams and mammograms will give you the best chance of winning the war if you develop breast cancer. Eating right, exercising and moderating alcohol use can lower your risk.