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Breast Cancer Basics
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Every tissue in your body is made up of a mass of healthy cells, which are like building blocks. The cells will grow as your body needs them, and when they die, more cells will grow to replace them. If your cells grow unnecessarily, they will form a cluster known as a tumor. Just because you have a tumor doesn’t mean you have cancer, many tumors are benign, which means that they are non-cancerous and made up of excess healthy cells. However, if the cells that make up a tumor are abnormal and grow rapidly and out of control, then they are cancerous, or malignant. Many times cancer cells will spread from one part of the body to another. For example, if your breast has a malignant tumor, cancer cells might get into the lymphatic system and travel to your lungs. This process is called metastasis. Cancer is named after the part of the body it came from, so even if cancer spreads from your breasts to other parts of your body, it will still be called breast cancer.

So, all exams you need to have to detect “lumps” are intended to find a malignant tumor of cancer cells. If the tumor is found early enough, you can have a lumpectomy to remove the tumor before the cancer spreads, and you improve your chances of avoiding any further cancer development. If the tumor in the breast is fairly large, or if it has spread throughout the breast, a mastectomy will help prevent it from entering elsewhere in your body. The key to survival and prevention of breast cancer is early detection, which means you need to pay constant attention and get all of the recommended exams on time.

What are the risks?
Nobody knows exactly what causes breast cancer, but research has shown certain factors are associated with high risks. The three highest risk factors are:

  • Age. As you get older, your risk for breast cancer increases. Most of the women who are diagnosed with breast cancer are over the age of 50.
  • Direct family history. This means members of your immediate family—your mother, sister or daughter. (This also goes for male relatives.) If your immediate family member has had breast cancer, especially before menopause or in both breasts, then you are at an increased risk for developing breast cancer.
  • Genetics. Familial breast cancer genes have been identified that contribute to the risk of developing breast cancer.

Studies suggest a link between an increased risk of contracting breast cancer and other factors, including:

  • Large cysts in the breast. If you have had large cysts in your breasts or abnormal cells with a previous breast biopsy, your risk for developing breast cancer increases.
  • A distant family history. If a distant relative such as your grandmother or aunt has had breast cancer, or another form of cancer, you are at a slightly increased risk for developing breast cancer.
  • Later childbirth. If you gave birth after the age of 30, or if you never have had children, your risk of developing breast cancer increases.
  • Early menstruation. If you began menstruation before the age of 12, you have an increased risk for developing breast cancer.
  • Overweight. Being overweight, especially after menopause and especially in the upper body, increases your risk of developing breast cancer. This includes having a high-calorie and high-fat diet.
  • Later menopause. If you began menopause after the age of 52, then you have an increased risk of developing breast cancer.
  • Excessive radiation. If you have been exposed to a large amount of radiation, through X-rays or other environmental radiation, you are at an increased risk for developing breast cancer. Annual mammograms do not increase risk.
  • Alcohol use. Alcohol use has also been linked to breast cancer. Women who consume more than one alcoholic drink a day have an increased risk of developing breast cancer.

Minimizing the Risks

As you can probably see from the highest breast cancer risk factors, most are not preventable. Family history, genetics, age and the onset of menstruation and menopause are factors you cannot control. That means the best way to minimize your risks for breast cancer is to be aware of the preventable risks, such as weight, and to always maintain a healthy lifestyle while remaining watchful. You should be aware of the appropriate exams that will detect early signs of breast cancer, and maintain a timely regimen that follows these exam guidelines. Assess your risk factors with your doctor or gynecologist to see how high your risks are for developing breast cancer. If you notice that you qualify for a lot of the very high risk factors for breast cancer, you might want to take extra precautions, have more exams, or even undergo preventive surgery such as a prophylactic mastectomy. Prophylactic mastectomy is usually for women who have already had breast cancer in one breast and are at a high risk for developing cancer in the other breast. Some women, under rare circumstances, opt to pre-empt the possibility of developing breast cancer by undergoing a preventive mastectomy, if they are at an extremely high risk.

The recommended detection regimen for women is:

  • A monthly breast self-exam after the age of 20
  • A clinical breast exam every three years after the age of 20 and once a year after the age of 40. However, most women have a clinical breast exam yearly at their annual physical.
  • A yearly screening mammogram after the age of 40

Remember that if you’re at a particularly high risk for developing breast cancer, you should talk to your doctor about more frequent screenings and exams. Most insurance companies only cover one mammogram per year, so this might include a clinical breast exam at every check-up, or more frequent self-exams.

Click below to read about related topics.

Your Breasts
Breast Cancer Basics
The Breast Self-Exam
The Clinical Breast Exam
Breast Cancer Treatment
Other Breast Problems