Breast Cancer Awareness Month: What You Should Know
by Jane Meggitt
The pink ribbon worn for Breast Cancer Awareness Month is among the best-known symbols in the battle against cancer. October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, a time to spread the word about prevention and treatment of the most frequently diagnosed cancer among women.
Other than skin cancer, breast cancer is the most common cancer in the United States. One out of every eight women will receive a breast cancer diagnosis in her lifetime. A small number of men are also diagnosed with the disease.
There are several types of breast cancer. The most typical is invasive ductal carcinoma. With IDC, cancer cells spread beyond the milk ducts into adjacent tissue. Other types include:
- Ductal carcinoma in situ — This is the earliest stage of breast cancer. It is curable when detected before it has spread into the ducts and becomes Invasive ductal carcinoma (IDC).
- Triple negative breast cancer — Breast cancer is triple negative when estrogen, progesterone and the HER-2 gene (the receptors most often involved in breast cancer) are not found in the tumor. This affects the types of therapies used for treatment.
- Inflammatory breast cancer — There is no palpable lump with IBC. Instead, symptoms involve nipple inversions and changes, breast swelling and reddening and skin pitting.
Breast Cancer Awareness Month
In 2021, an estimated 43,000 women in the U.S. will die from breast cancer. About 281,550 cases of breast cancer are expected to be diagnosed. Currently, 3.8 million women in the U.S. are breast cancer survivors.
Breast Cancer Awareness Month saves lives by providing information about the importance of scheduling regular mammograms and recognizing breast cancer symptoms.
Preventing Breast Cancer
There is no way to definitely prevent breast cancer, but there are steps you can take to reduce the odds. Consume a healthy diet, exercise regularly, maintain a healthy weight and avoid alcohol.
Women should learn how to examine their breasts each month to become familiar with their normal feel and appearance and detect any changes. If a breast undergoes changes or there are differences between the two, you should contact your doctor.
Between five and 10% of breast cancers are the result of inherited genetic mutations. Women with a history of breast cancer in their family may want to undergo BRCA genetic testing. A positive test means a higher risk of developing breast cancer. While some women choose to undergo a prophylactic mastectomy to eliminate their risk, more frequent mammograms or ultrasounds are other alternatives.
Eighty-five percent of women diagnosed with breast cancer have no family history of the disease. Breast cancer is most prevalent in menopausal women.
The Importance of Early Detection
The increase in breast cancer survival rates in recent decades is primarily due to early detection. When breast cancer is detected in its early stages, before it has the chance to metastasize (or spread), the outlook for the patient improves significantly. That’s why regular mammograms after the age of 40 are so critical.
Breast Cancer Symptoms
Make an appointment with your doctor right away if experiencing any of these symptoms:
- Lump or thickening in the breast.
- Pitting or redness in the breast skin.
- New nipple inversion.
- Changes in the areola (nipple) skin.
Even if you had a clean mammogram recently, you should seek medical advice if symptoms appear. Mammograms are not foolproof and are known to miss abnormalities in the breast tissue of pre-menopausal women. That is because breast tissue is denser prior to menopause.
Breast Cancer Diagnosis
Diagnosis begins with a breast exam conducted by the doctor looking for lumps or abnormalities. A screening mammogram may detect an abnormality, after which the doctor will order a diagnostic mammogram or ultrasound for further evaluation.
A biopsy is conducted to extract cells from the suspicious area and send them to a pathology lab for testing. The pathologist determines whether the cells are cancerous. The pathologist plays a role in determining the stage of the tumor which ranges from 0 to IV. Stage 0 refers to DCIS while in Stage IV the cancer has spread to other parts of the body. Stages I and II are considered earlier-stage cancers. The cancer’s grade depends on its aggressiveness.
Breast Cancer Treatment
Treatment decisions depend on the size, stage and grade of the tumor. Some women may choose to undergo a lumpectomy — a procedure that spares the breast while removing the tumor. Others may need to have a mastectomy — surgical removal of the breast. The oncologist discusses the best treatment choices for each patient.
Besides surgery, breast cancer treatment may include:
- Hormone-blocking therapy.
- Targeted therapy drugs.
For those women opting for mastectomy, breast reconstruction by a plastic surgeon may follow. Women may choose between implants or the surgery known as flap reconstruction. The implant procedure is less involved, but the flap reconstruction can create more natural-looking breasts. Your plastic surgeon will discuss your options before the mastectomy, as reconstruction can start in conjunction with that procedure.
At Yosemite Pathology and Precision Pathology, women’s health is of utmost importance. Yosemite Pathology was founded in 1948 by a woman, Dr. Jeanne Miller, a UCSF-trained pathologist. Our staff now encompasses more than 30 board-certified anatomic pathologists.
Jane Meggitt’s work has appeared in dozens of publications including USA Today, Zack’s, Financial Advisor, nj.com, The Houston Chronicle and The Nest. She is a graduate of New York University.
Mayo Clinic – Breast Cancer
National Breast Cancer Foundation – Types of Breast Cancer
Breast Cancer – U.S. Breast Cancer Statistics
Npj Breast Cancer – “Preventing breast cancer now by acting on what we already know”
MedlinePlus – BRCA Genetic Test
American Cancer Society – Breast Cancer Early Detection and Diagnosis