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Breast cancer: causes, symptoms, treatment, and prevention

October 26, 2022 • read

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Breast cancer: causes, symptoms, treatment, and prevention

Everyone knows someone whose life has been ripped apart by a cancer diagnosis, especially when it comes to breast cancer. The more you know about the disease, however, and the more you can spot its potential signs and symptoms, the better off you are. Because the sooner cancer is caught and treated, the better your prognosis is likely to be.

Why is breast cancer awareness important?

Breast cancer affects 28,000 women every year, and one in eight Canadian women is diagnosed with breast cancer in her life. Sadly, although treatments are evolving, an average of 15 Canadian women lose their lives to this disease every day.

Moreover, while men make up less than 1% of all breast cancer diagnoses, they’re more likely to be diagnosed at a later stage, contributing to a higher breast cancer mortality rate for them.

If you’ve recently received a diagnosis and need help navigating the condition, Maple can help. Maple is a telehealth provider that can connect you to Canadian-licensed doctors or specialists from your phone, tablet, or computer.

With Maple, you can make an appointment with an oncology navigator to help you better understand your diagnosis. Your oncologist can help you explore additional treatment options, including clinical trials, if appropriate.

What are breast cancer’s major causes?

Lifestyle decisions like lack of exercise, eating poorly, smoking, and excess consumption of alcohol are all risk factors for breast cancer, but many elements contribute to its development. These include:

  • Genetics — women with the BRCA1 and the BRCA2 gene mutation are at a higher risk. This is the most common hereditary risk factor. If you have it, your chance of developing breast cancer is as high as 85%.
  • Age — your risk increases as you get older, especially over the age of 50
  • Having breast cancer — if you’re a breast cancer survivor, your odds of getting it are higher than if you’ve never had the disease
  • Having dense breast tissue — you can’t tell if you have dense breasts by looking at them or even touching them. The only way to know if you have this risk factor that makes you four to six times more likely to get breast cancer is by having a mammogram.
  • Family history — you’re more likely to receive a diagnosis if someone in your family has had it, especially if it’s your sister, daughter, mother, or a close male relative like your father, son, or brother.
  • History of radiation exposure — undergoing radiation therapy on your chest or breasts ups your breast cancer risk later in life.
  • How many years you menstruate — getting your period before age 12, or experiencing menopause after age 55, increases your lifetime exposure to estrogen, which plays a role in breast cancer development.
  • Exposure to certain medications — if your mother took diethylstilbestrol, a synthetic estrogen, during pregnancy, or if you took it, your risk is higher. Additionally, hormone therapy to treat the symptoms of menopause often includes high doses of estrogen, which ups your risk. Oral contraceptive pills containing estrogen and progesterone may also slightly increase your risk, especially if you take them for more than 10 years.
  • Atypical hyperplasia — breast cancer is more likely to form where there’s atypical hyperplasia, a benign (non-cancerous) condition with abnormal cells in breast tissue. Your risk is elevated if you have a family history or were diagnosed with atypical hyperplasia before menopause.

What are the initial symptoms and first signs of breast cancer for men and women?

Finding a lump in your breast is the most common sign of breast cancer. But, while you should have it checked out by a healthcare provider, you don’t need to panic immediately. Other benign conditions like cysts and fibroadenomas also cause lumps.

The initial signs and symptoms of breast cancer tend to be more specific. These include:

  • A painless, hard, and irregularly shaped lump in the breast
  • Sudden changes to the skin on or around your breast, including thickening of the skin, redness, or dimpling — like you’d see on an orange peel
  • Scaly skin around the nipple
  • Sudden change in the size or shape of your breast
  • Nipple discharge, especially if it’s exclusive to one breast and is clear or bloody
  • Sudden or new nipple inversion
  • An open sore or rash on or near the nipple
  • Persistent pain in a part of the breast

What happens if breast cancer goes untreated?

Breast cancer is invariably fatal without intervention and should never go untreated. While there are reports of individuals living for up to 12 years with untreated breast cancer, the disease takes many forms that progress at different rates. This means 12 years is an unlikely outcome, not the average.

What age range has a high risk of breast cancer?

Age is a significant risk factor for breast cancer. At 40, a woman’s risk for the disease is about one in 65. At 50, that risk increases to about one in 42, and by age 60, it jumps to one in 28. As a result, current guidelines recommend women over 50 receive breast cancer screening every two years.

Aging is also a factor in male breast cancer — the average age men receive a diagnosis is 72.

What is the survival rate for breast cancer?

Breast cancer survival rates in Canada are encouraging — about 89% of women are alive five years after their diagnosis. But, this doesn’t mean that each individual has an 89% chance of survival. Your prognosis depends on which type of breast cancer you have and what stage it was caught.

Survival rates for male breast cancer are lower, with approximately 80% of men alive five years after their diagnosis. But as with their female counterparts, this doesn’t reflect each individual’s odds.

What are the different types of breast cancer?

Breast cancer doesn’t just come in one form. The type of cancer you have is based on the cells in the breast that become cancerous. Below are the most common types of breast cancer.

Ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS)

DCIS is a non-invasive cancer. Abnormal cells are found in the milk duct lining and haven’t spread. If this type of breast cancer is found early, it’s treatable. Left untreated, it can spread.

Invasive ductal carcinoma (IDC)

With IDC, abnormal cells that start in the milk ducts have spread to other parts of the breast tissue and potentially other parts of the body. IDC is also the most common type of breast cancer.

Lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS)

LCIS is a non-invasive cancer. Abnormal cells are found in the lobules (the glands that produce milk), and haven’t spread to the surrounding tissue. This type of breast cancer is very treatable, but the risk of it spreading to the other breast is high.

Invasive lobular cancer (ILC)

ILC begins in the milk glands and spreads to the surrounding tissue. It can also spread through the blood and lymph systems to other parts of the body.

Triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC)

TNBC is diagnosed when the three most common types of receptors known to ignite breast cancer growth — estrogen, progesterone, and HER2 — aren’t present in the tumour. This makes treatments like hormone therapy and drugs that target these receptors unsuccessful. Instead, chemotherapy is the treatment of choice.

Inflammatory breast cancer (IBC)

IBC is a fast-growing breast cancer where the cells invade the skin and lymph nodes of the breast. There are often no tumours or lumps. Symptoms typically arise when the lymph vessels become blocked by the cancer cells.

Metastatic breast cancer (MBC)

Also categorized as Stage 4 cancer, MBC has already spread to other parts of the body, including the lungs, liver, bones, or brain.

How is breast cancer treated?

There are many types of treatment, and they depend on the stage and type of breast cancer. Below are some of the options for treating breast cancer and some of their side effects.

Surgery

Surgery can take a couple of different forms. Your surgeon may suggest a mastectomy, which involves the removal of the entire breast and some surrounding lymph nodes.

Side effects of this treatment may include body image and alignment issues. Many women also report numbness after surgery that takes years to go away or never fully diminishes.

Alternatively, your surgeon may recommend breast conserving surgery like a lumpectomy or partial mastectomy. While these techniques are less invasive and leave much of your breast intact, they slightly augment the risk of your cancer reoccuring. They also increase your likelihood of needing chemotherapy.

Chemotherapy

With chemotherapy treatment, your doctor will give you either oral or injection anti-cancer drugs. The list of chemotherapy’s side effects is long, including fatigue, loss of hair, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, increased risk of other forms of cancer, early menopause, and infertility. Despite this, it remains an effective treatment for large and aggressive forms of breast cancer.

Hormone therapy

Some forms of breast cancer cells attach themselves to certain hormones your body produces — progesterone and estrogen — to fuel their growth. Hormone therapy involves lowering the levels of these hormones in the body or blocking cancer cells from attaching to them.

Because hormone therapy involves limiting the amount of estrogen in your body, side effects include symptoms like hot flashes and vaginal dryness. In some instances, they can also trigger menopause.

Immunotherapy

Triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC) is a specific form of the disease that, among other things, doesn’t have hormone receptors. In TNBC cases, immunotherapy — which involves boosting the immune system — is a great stand-in treatment for hormone therapy.

Side effects of this treatment can include flu-like symptoms, rash, and nausea. Occasionally, an infusion reaction can trigger fever, chills, dizziness, and trouble breathing.

Radiation

Radiation therapy uses radiation, or intense beams of energy, to destroy cancer cells. Side effects can range from fatigue and skin irritation to nerve damage in the arm, and occasionally lymphedema — a condition involving fluid build-up in the surrounding lymph nodes.

What is breast cancer screening and does it save lives?

Breast cancer screening involves evaluating your breast tissue for cancer before you show signs or symptoms of the disease. There are a number of ways for breast observation, including ultrasound, mammography screening, MRI, or biopsy.

While breast self-exams are no longer recommended per clinical practice guidelines, other forms of in-clinic screening are crucial to stay on top of your breast health. Seven lives are saved for every 1,000 women who undergo regular breast cancer screening for 20 years.

At what age should I begin screening for breast cancer?

If you’re over the age of 50, current guidelines recommend you undergo breast cancer screening every two years.

If you have preexisting risk factors for the disease, however, like the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene, or an immediate family member with the disease, your family doctor will likely recommend you begin annual screening at age 30.

Five tips to help prevent breast cancer

While you can’t change your genes or your family history, you can control some of your risk factors for breast cancer. Here’s how:

  1. Don’t drink or drink in moderation. Alcohol is a carcinogen which means it causes cancer, and the more you drink, the more it increases your risk. Avoiding alcohol altogether is best, so if you don’t drink, don’t start. If you do drink, limit yourself to one per occasion and avoid drinking every day.
  2. Maintain a healthy body weight. Fat cells create estrogen, thereby contributing to breast cancer. If you’re carrying excess weight, speak to your healthcare provider about how to incorporate healthy lifestyle changes into your life.
  3. Don’t smoke. Cigarettes contain a host of different cancer-causing chemicals. Besides upping your risk for breast cancer, smoking also causes mouth, throat, and esophageal cancers — among others. Not smoking is the best preventative care you can practice.
  4. Get moving. Regular exercise can help you maintain a healthy weight and keep estrogen-producing fat cells at bay. As an added bonus, it produces endorphins to boost your mood and help you destress.
  5. Explore non-hormonal menopause treatments. Going through menopause often means undergoing hormone therapy. While this reduces symptoms like hot flashes and mood swings, it can also contribute to the development of breast cancer. Speak to your doctor about other non-hormonal treatment options to reduce this risk.

How Maple can help you navigate breast cancer

Life with breast cancer can be overwhelming, and understanding your options can be confusing. If you’re dealing with a recent diagnosis, an oncology navigator at Maple can help. Your oncology navigator can provide a second opinion regarding your condition and treatment possibilities, including clinical trials, if appropriate. Make an appointment with an oncology navigator today to take control of your breast cancer treatment and get a clear understanding of all your options.

This blog was developed by our team and reviewed by a medical professional.

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