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Breast cancer – Causes, risk factors, symptoms, diagnosis and more

Breast cancer – Causes, risk factors, symptoms, diagnosis and more

Cancerous tumors that develop in the cells of the breasts is known as breast cancer. In women, breast cancer is the most common cancer after skin cancer. Breast cancer can affect both men and women. However, the chances of occurrence of breast cancer are higher in women than in men. Today, with the awareness and substantial funding, there’s enough advancement in the treatment and diagnostic process of breast cancer. As a result of this, the number of deaths has substantially decreased.

Causes of breast cancer

Breast cancer occurs as a result of abnormal growth of the breast cells. With time, these cells multiply faster than healthy cells. Later, these cells gather together and form an abnormal lump. The cancerous cells might metastasize or spread from your breast to the lymph nodes and reach the other body parts. Primarily, cancer begins from the cells present in the milk-producing ducts. However, breast cancer might also develop in the lobules or the other tissues or cells found in the breast.

Certain environmental, hormonal, and lifestyle factors might put you at risk of breast cancer. Moreover, cancer is likely caused as a result of the complex interaction of the environment and the genetic imbalance.

Genetic breast cancer

Approximately 10% of the cases of breast cancer are linked to gene mutations, which pass from one generation to the other in the family.

Risk factors of breast cancer

A breast cancer risk would include anything that makes you more likely to develop the disease. However, simply having certain risk factors doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll develop breast cancer. Common associated risk factors include:

  • Gender

Women are more likely to develop breast cancer as compared to men.

  • Age

As you grow older, the risk of breast cancer increases.

  • Family history

If your mom, sister, or daughter were diagnosed with breast cancer, then you are more likely to develop the disease.

  • Obesity

Being overweight also increases the risk of breast cancer.

  • Personal history of conditions

If a lobular carcinoma was found in atypical hyperplasia or LCIS of the breast in the past breast biopsy, then you are at a higher risk of developing cancer.

  • Personal history of cancer in one breast

If you had cancer in one breast in the past, your chances of developing the disease are higher.

  • Early periods

If you had your first period before the age of 12, you are at an increased risk.

  • Inherited genes

There are a few gene mutations like, BRCA1 and BRCA2, that are passed from parents to children, these can put you at a higher risk of cancer.

  • Exposure to radiation

Children or young adults who undergo any radiation treatment to the chest are at a higher risk of developing breast cancer.

  • Late menopause
    If your menopause comes later than usual, you are at a higher risk.
  • Pregnancy at an older age

If you had your first child after 30, the risk is higher.

  • No pregnancy

Women who do not conceive at least once in their lifetime are at a higher risk.

  • Alcohol consumption

High alcohol consumption increases the risk of breast cancer.

  • Postmenopausal hormone therapy

Women who take medication to cure the symptoms of menopause are at a higher risk of developing breast cancer.

Symptoms of breast cancer

Some common signs of breast cancer include:

  • Change in the shape, size, or the appearance of the breast
  • Inverted nipple
  • Lump in the breast
  • Thickening around the breast that feels unusual
  • Redness on the skin over the breast
  • Crusting, scaling, peeling, or flaking of the areola
  • Sudden change in the skin surrounding the breast

Diagnosis of breast cancer

There are certain procedures and tests conducted to diagnose breast cancer. These include:

  • MRI of breast

Using an MRI machine, detailed pictures of the breasts are taken to find any abnormalities. Before going for a breast MRI, you’ll have to get an injection of dye.

  • Breast examination

Under this, the doctor will examine the lymph nodes in the armpit and your breasts to check for abnormalities.

  • Biopsy

It is a 100% certain way to diagnose breast cancer. In this, a specialized needle is used to take out a core of tissue from any area around the breasts that might look suspicious.

  • Mammogram

Under this, an X-ray of the breast is taken. In case any abnormality is seen in the X-ray, you’ll have to go for a diagnostic mammogram for further confirmation.

  • Ultrasound of the breast
    Ultrasound is conducted to check if the new breast is a fluid-filled cyst or a solid mass.

These tests might be followed by other procedures and tests to examine the situation further.

Finding the stage of cancer

Now, after the doctor has confirmed after diagnosis, he would next want to understand the severity of the grade or stage of cancer. The stage ranges from 0 to IV, in which 0 is non-invasive, wherein the cancer cells are still restricted to the milk ducts. On the other hand, stage IV is metastatic breast cancer, wherein cancer has spread to the other parts of the body. Based on the stage, your prognosis and treatment will be worked out.

A complete idea of the stage of cancer might not be available until breast cancer surgery is performed. However, there are a few tests and procedures that are performed to identify the stage. These include:

  • Bone scan
  • A complete blood count test
  • CT scan
  • Mammogram of 2nd breast
  • Breast MRI
  • Positron emission tomography scan

These procedures and tests aren’t needed in all cases. The doctor will select only appropriate. He advises these tests and procedures based on the symptoms you experience. It depends on one case to another.

Treatment options for breast cancer

Depending on the type, grade, stage, size, and the sensitivity of the cancer cells to the hormones, a treatment option is determined. Additionally, your preferences and overall health are also considered. Some popular treatment options include:


Under this, an operation to treat breast cancer is performed. This includes:

  • Lumpectomy

It is a breast-conserving surgery, in which the doctor will remove a small margin of healthy tissue surrounding the breast and the tumor. This treatment is for treating smaller tumors. In the case of larger tumors, this treatment might be preceded by chemotherapy to shrink the tumor.

  • Mastectomy

Under this treatment, the entire breast tissue – fatty tissue, ducts, lobules, and some skin (areola and nipple) are removed.

  • Removal of both breasts

At times, a woman with cancer in one breast might choose to surgically remove both the breasts to prevent the spread of cancer.

  • Axillary lymph node dissection

In case, the cancer is found in sentinel lymph nodes, additional lymph nodes in armpits will be removed too.

  • Sentinel node biopsy

To examine the spread of cancer to the lymph nodes, the surgeon will recommend removing the lymph nodes that are most susceptible to receive drainage.


In this treatment method, certain medicines are used to destroy the cancer cells. Chemotherapy is recommended when post-surgery, there is a higher risk of the relapse or spread of the cancer cells. Women who have larger breast tumors might be recommended chemotherapy before surgery. This treatment measure might also be used when cancer has spread to other parts of the body. However, it has its share of side-effects, such as vomiting, nausea, hair loss, fatigue, and increased risk of infection. There are a few rare side effects of chemotherapy, including infertility, premature menopause, nerve damage, blood cell cancer, and kidney and heart damage.

Radiation therapy

In this treatment option, protons and X-rays are used to combat the cancer cells. Radiation therapy in breast cancer could range from three days to six weeks, depending on the type of treatment. There are a few side effects to this treatment, including rashes, fatigue, firmness, or swelling in the breast tissue. In a few cases, some more grave problems might occur, such as damage to the lungs or heart, or a relapse of cancer in the treated area.

Targeted therapy

Certain medicines are used to attack certain abnormalities within the unhealthy cells. After this treatment method, you’ll be tested to see if there’s any positive impact of these medicines, and then accordingly, further treatment will be performed.

Hormone therapy

In the case of the progesterone receptor-positive and the estrogen receptor-positive, hormone-blocking therapy is used. This therapy might be used pre-or-post surgery to reduce the chances of a relapse of cancer. When cancer has spread, hormone therapy helps in shrinking and controlling it. Treatment measures of hormone therapy include:

  • Medications or surgery to reduce hormone production in ovaries
  • Medication to prevent the body from making estrogen post-menopause
  • Medications that block the hormones from attacking the cells

There are a few side effects of hormone therapy. These include vaginal dryness, night sweats, and hot flashes. Blood clots and bone thinning are also experienced as side effects of this treatment.


Under this, your immune system is used to combat cancer. This treatment method is used in the case of triple-negative breast cancer, wherein the cancer cells do not have HER2, estrogen, or progesterone.

Palliative care

This treatment method is used to provide relief from the symptoms and pain of the illness. It is used while you are already undergoing other painful treatments.


A few changes in your diet and lifestyle can also reduce your chances of getting breast cancer. This diet will involve cutting out certain food items and adding healthy ones.

Foods to add to the diet

  • Good portion of vegetables (including green leafy vegetables like broccoli and kale) and fruits (including peaches and berries) on an everyday basis
  • Soy products, such as soy milk, tofu, edamame, soy nuts, and tempeh
  • Dairy products
  • Low-fat milk
  • Fiber-rich food, such as legumes, beans, pulses, and whole grains
  • Food rich in Vitamin D (fortified foods)
  • Spices that have anti-inflammatory properties
  • Sweet potato
  • Good fat including nuts, olive oil, seeds, and avocados
  • Turmeric
  • Green tea

Foods to remove from the diet

  • Trans-fat found in fried food, donuts, crackers, pastries, among others
  • Alcohol
  • Added sugar
  • Processed food
  • Red meat

Prevention of breast cancer

Making a few lifestyle changes can lower the risk of breast cancer. Some of the alterations that can be made include:

  • Drinking in moderation

You should limit your consumption of alcohol.

  • Undergo regular screenings

Talk to your doctor about when you should begin breast cancer examinations and screenings.

  • Perform regular self-examinations

You need to be familiar with your breasts. This will help you self-examine your breast occasionally. You should check for any changes in size, lumps, or any other abnormalities.

  • Be physically active

Try to exercise for 30 minutes every day.

  • Keep a check on your weight

If you are a bit on the heavier side, try to lose weight.

  • Reduce or get rid of postmenopausal hormone therapy

If possible, reduce hormone therapy as much as possible. Opt for the lowest dose, if needed.

  • Follow a healthy diet

It’s been found that women who eat a more plant-based diet with healthy fats are less likely to develop breast cancer.

How to reduce the risk of breast cancer in women with high risk?

Based on the doctor assessment, if you are one of the women who fall under high breast cancer risk, and then you can consider either of the following options:

  • Preventive surgery

If you are a woman with a high risk of breast cancer, you can consider prophylactic mastectomy, which is a surgery to remove one or both breasts to prevent the risk of cancer. Prophylactic oophorectomy, which is the removal of the ovaries, also reduces the risk of both ovarian and breast cancer.

  • Preventive medications

There are medications like aromatase inhibitors or selective estrogen receptor modulators, which are a type of estrogen-blocking medication that reduces the risk of breast cancer. Since these medications have a good number of side-effects, such medications are reserved only for women with a high risk of breast cancer.

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