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Understanding Breast Cancer: Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment

Dr. Twinkle Behl

Breast cancer is the most common cause of cancer-related deaths in women.

Cancer is a name given to a collection of diseases where the cells of a particular body-part mutate and begin to grow and spread unnaturally. These new cells often form growths known as tumors or crowd out the normal cells. As a result, the body is unable to work in the manner it should. Breast cancer develops in the lobules and ducts in the breasts usually. Lobules are the glands in the breasts that produce milk and the ducts are pathways for the milk to get delivered. Breast cancer can also happen in the fatty and fibrous tissues, though this is less common.

Breast cancer is the most common cause of cancer-related deaths in women. In India, younger women are more susceptible to aggressive forms of breast cancer.

Types of breast cancer

There are 2 breast cancer types- invasive and noninvasive (also known as in situ). Based on these categorizations, there are several types of breast cancer. A brief overview of the various types is mentioned below.

  • Ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS)- DCIS is a noninvasive type of cancer affecting the cellular lining of the ducts. The cells in the ducts mutate and become cancerous but don’t spread to other areas of the body.
  • Lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS)- LCIS occurs in the milk-glands of the breasts and like DCIS is non-invasive.
  • Invasive ductal carcinoma (IDC)- This is the most common type of breast cancer which starts in the ducts and later spreads to the surrounding tissues in the breasts. Once the cancerous cells grow beyond the milk ducts, they begin to spread to other organs of the body.
  • Invasive lobular carcinoma (ILC)- ILC starts in the lobules of the breasts and like IDC spreads to other areas of the body.

Some of the other breast cancer types are Paget disease which affects the nipples and areola. Phyllodes tumor, which is a rare kind of cancer affects the connective tissues and Angiosarcoma, which presents itself in the blood and lymph vessels in breasts.

Common symptoms of breast cancer

The early stages of breast cancer do not show any noticeable symptoms. Quite often, the tumor is too small to be physically felt but it can be viewed in a mammogram. While different types of breast cancer present different symptoms, the most common signs are-

  • A hard lump or thick tissue in the breast which feels different from the surrounding tissues.
  • Changes in the shape, size, and appearance of breasts.
  • Inversion of nipples.
  • Discharge from the nipples other than milk.
  • Bleeding from nipples.
  • Pitting and redness of skin on the breasts (resembling an orange peel).
  • Flaking, scaling or peeling of breast skin.
  • Presence of a lump or swelling under the arms.

Not all lumps are cancerous in nature. However, if one finds a lump in the breasts one should immediately consult an oncologist and get it examined.

Diagnosis of breast cancer

Apart from a physical examination, there are certain types of breast examinations and tests performed by the doctor in order to determine if the symptoms are caused by cancer or some other type of benign or non-cancerous condition. A brief overview of the various diagnostic tests is mentioned below.

  • Mammogram- Mammogram is the most effective breast imaging technique that can reveal lumps and tumors present in breasts. Women with an average risk of getting breast cancer (A woman is said to be at an average risk of developing breast cancer if she does not have a personal history of breast cancer, a strong family history of it, or a genetic mutation known to increase the risk of breast cancer such as in a BRCA gene, and she has not had chest radiation therapy before the age of 30) are often advised to get mammograms at least once a year to screen for cancerous lumps. Once a lump has been detected, the doctor may prescribe additional tests to confirm the condition.
  • Ultrasound- Breast ultrasound is used to develop a clear image of the tissues deep within the breasts. It utilizes sound waves to create the picture and can be used to distinguish between cancerous tumors and benign lumps. Ultrasound is efficient in detecting the breast cancer types.
  • Breast biopsy- A breast biopsy is the only sure-shot way of confirming whether a patient has breast cancer. The test involves the doctor extracting a portion of the affected tissue using a specialized needle and imaging techniques. The sample is then analyzed in a lab to determine its nature. Biopsy also reveals how aggressive the cancer is and its current stage.

Grades of breast cancer

The cancer cells in the biopsy sample are usually graded. This helps doctors predict how fast the cancer is likely to grow and spread. Cancer cells are graded based on how much they look like normal cells. 1, 2, and 3 are the various grades used.

Cells that look very different from normal cells are given a higher grade (3) and they generally tend to grow faster. To find out how far cancer has spread, breast cancer staging is done, where lower numbers (like 1) mean a lower spread while a stage 4 cancer is serious and means that cancer has spread to other areas in the body.

Treatment of breast cancer

The treatment method that is employed depends on the size of the tumor and the spread of the cancerous cells (as there are different breast cancer types). Some of the various treatment methods of breast cancer is mentioned below.

  • Surgery- Surgical methods revolve around the removal of cancerous regions of the breast. Lumpectomy is a surgical procedure that removes only the cancerous regions from the breast, leaving the neighboring tissues intact. Mastectomy, on the other hand, involves the complete removal of a single or both the breasts. There are other surgical procedures that primarily focus on the removal of the cancerous lymph nodes. Breast reconstruction surgeries are done post the mastectomy (to build a breast shape as natural as the previous breast) when the person opts for them.
  • Radiation therapy- Radiation therapy involves systematically eliminating the cancer cells through high-powered beams of radiation which are applied externally over the body. There is also a special form of internal radiation therapy known as brachytherapy which involves placing radioactive pellets near the cancerous regions.
  • Chemotherapy- Chemotherapy is primarily a drug-based treatment which is often combined with surgery. It is also often applied before major surgery in order to shrink the size of the tumors. This method is associated with many harsh side-effects such as hair loss, loss of immunity and anemia among others.

Preventing breast cancer

The main line of defense against breast cancer is having a healthy lifestyle and being aware of the various risk factors. Excessive consumption of alcohol and tobacco increases the risk of breast cancer while diet and exercise help in preventing it. A lot of women who have a predisposition towards this condition because of family history are advised to take preemptive measures by consulting with oncologists.

Here at mfine, we have teamed up with the top oncologists from the best hospitals in the country. You can now download the mfine app and begin a preventive treatment strategy with a doctor, right from the comfort of your own home. Being aware and a step ahead is being safe from breast cancer!

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