Breast cancer is one of the most common forms of cancer in the world. It is the leading form of cancer in American women (other than skin cancer) and also highly common in men. There is a 13% risk of any woman being diagnosed with breast cancer at some point in their life (1/8). For all these reasons, it’s important to be informed about the condition, the treatment options, and the reality of the illness.
In this post, we will examine those things in detail.
Breast cancer is extremely common in women then, and is also the second most common cause of cancer death in women (behind lung cancer). A woman diagnosed with breast cancer has a 2.6% mortality rate (meaning there is a 1 in 38 chance of it being fatal)1.
While this makes for an extremely frightening disease, it’s important to recognize that the odds are still in your favor. That’s especially true if you catch the condition early, and you follow the doctor’s instructions carefully when it comes to breast cancer treatments.
There are currently 3.5 million breast cancer survivors in the US. You can beat this!
Knowing the enemy
When considering treatment options for any condition, it is useful to first understand the precise cause. By knowing what causes breast cancer and how it forms, you will be in a better position to choose treatment options.
Breast cancer behaves in just the same way as other forms of cancer. Essentially, breast cancer is the result of mutations in the cells, which then spread and multiply throughout the body. Every cell houses its genetic code in its DNA, which in turn is located in the center (called the nucleus). When a cell multiplies, it does so by producing an exact copy of itself (mitosis), and here, DNA works as a kind of blueprint to tell the body what the new copy of the cell should look like, and what it’s function will be.
The problem occurs when that DNA is damaged. This then provides an inaccurate blueprint, which in turn results in a faulty copy of the cell. Seeing as the DNA is what tells the cell how to behave and perform its roles in the body, this then means that those new copies are unable to perform as they should.
Every time the cell continues to split and divide, that incorrect copy is reproduced again and again. Once there are enough damaged cells, this then leaves a whole section of the tissue as ineffective, and this is what we call a tumor.
Tumor cells continue to multiply and copy themselves, which is how tumors grow. Essentially, a tumor can become large enough that it prevents the organ/tissue from performing properly. When this happens, the patient will exhibit signs of illness. Eventually, the tumor may cause organ failure. The physical mass of the tumor also continues to grow unchecked, which can lead to discomfort and issues with movement and bodily functions. These lumps also provide us with the opportunity to identify the presence of cancer however – checking for lumps is one of the very best things women can do to catch breast cancer early.
Cancer becomes more serious still once it travels to other parts of the body. When cancer cells reach the blood, lymph nodes, nerves, or other areas, it can cause more damage and quickly spread to other areas.
The sooner breast cancer is found and treated, the better the outcomes for patients.
Breast Cancer Treatment Options
There are a number of breast cancer treatment options that a patient and doctor can discuss together. The best option for each patient will depend on the patient, the progression of the cancer, and the age/health of the patient2.
One of the most common breast cancer treatments is surgery. This can be used to remove the tumor itself, or it might be used to remove the entire breast (these are called a lumpectomy and mastectomy respectively). Of course, a lumpectomy will be preferable for most women, however mastectomy becomes more important when the tumor is large enough. Some women will choose to get a preemptive double mastectomy if they know that they have a high chance of breast cancer due to their family history.
Mastectomies can be invasive and upsetting procedures for patients. Fortunately, there are many options to help mitigate the damage, such as nipple-sparing mastectomies which aim to keep the nipple intact. Likewise, reconstructive surgery can be used to rebuild the breast.
Lymph node removal and analysis may also be an option where the cancer cells are found primarily in the axillary lymph nodes.
Other options include radiation therapy and chemotherapy. Radiation therapy involves directly radiating the affected area using x-rays. These can be used to destroy cells of all kinds, but will be aimed specifically at the cancer cells using external-beam radiation therapy. Intra-operative radiation therapy can be used during an operation.
The danger with radiation therapy, is that it can also damage the healthy cells surrounding the cancerous tissues.
Brachytherapy meanwhile is a type of therapy that involves inserting radiation-emitting sources permanently into the breast tissue. This can destroy cancer cells over the course of about one year, until the “seeds” are no longer active.
Chemotherapy works in a similar manner but uses chemicals to destroy cells. This can have profound effects throughout the body, leading to hair loss, sickness, and weight loss. However, this can be effective in more aggressive forms of cancer.
Immunotherapy is a treatment option that involves strengthening the body’s own immune system to combat cancer cells. In some cases, this can be achieved by removing blood, training cells to identify the particular patient’s cancerous tissue, and then reinserting it. Hormonal therapy (also known as endocrine therapy) is effective against many hormones that test positive for estrogen or progesterone receptors. These tumors use hormones to continue to grow, so by blocking the production of that hormone, it’s possible to prevent it from growing larger.
With so many treatment options available, it is crucial that patients speak with their physicians to find the right options for them. The sooner they begin treatment, the better their chances of a positive outcome.