October is recognised as Breast Cancer Awareness month. It’s not just a time to go pink by wearing the ribbon but also spread awareness about the risks of breast cancer with age.
While people now have more information about breast cancer, there continues to be a lack of detailed knowledge around it.
Breast cancer is the most common female cancer worldwide representing nearly a quarter of all cancers in women. The global burden of breast cancer is likely to cross two million by 2030.
In this article, we will help you understand not just the risks, symptoms, diagnosis and treatments associated with breast cancer, but also the risk you stand at with age.
The Breast Cancer Gene: What Is It And How Is It Detected?
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One of the most common causes of hereditary breast cancer involves inherited mutation to certain genes like BRCA1 and BRCA2.
These genes help to repair the damaged DNA and provide protection against certain cancers. But when genetic abnormalities limit the proper functioning of these genes, they increase the risk of cancer.
Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), states that “About three per cent of breast cancer cases (which is about 7,500 women per year) result from inherited mutations in both the genes.”
These mutations, according to CDC, can be detected through genetic testing using multigene panels.
Family History Influencing Cancer Risk
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A family history of cancer can also increase the risk of breast cancer.
CDC says, “A woman’s risk for breast cancer is higher if she has a mum, sister, or daughter or multiple family members on either her mother’s or father’s side of the family who has had breast or ovarian cancer.”
The review published in the journal Annals of Oncology thus highlighted that a close family member’s history of cancer seems to increase a person’s risk of developing the same or a different form of cancer.
Risk Of Breast Cancer By Age
Another major factor that influences your risk of breast cancer is age. CDC says that most breast cancers are found in women who are above the age of 50 and more.
Here are some other risks of breast cancer that you cannot change:
- Reproductive history: In case a female has early menstrual periods (before age 12) and/or starts menopause after the age of 55, she can be exposed to hormones for longer periods. This can raise the risk of breast cancer.
- Dense breasts: This also increases the risk of breast cancer in women. Dense breasts mean you will have more connective tissue than fatty tissue, and this can sometimes make it hard to detect tumours on a mammogram.
- Personal history of breast cancer: Women who have had breast cancer are also likely to have it for the second time.
- Previous treatment using radiation therapy: Women stand at a higher risk of developing breast cancer later in life if they’ve had radiation therapy to their chest or breasts before the age of 30.
Even with the development of these risk factors it is important to note that they do not mean you will have the disease. Some women who may have the risk symptoms, may not necessarily develop breast cancer during their lifetime.
But knowing the risks can certainly help you to talk to your doctor. Discuss the ways in which you can lower your chances of breast cancer and this is where regular screenings in diagnosing breast cancer comes into play.
5 Other Risks That Increase Your Chance Of Breast Cancer
While you may not have any control over the aforementioned factors, there are some that can be handled with physical intervention and you can minimise the risk of breast cancer.
- Not being active: Women who are not physically active have a higher risk of getting breast cancer. So it may be a good idea to do some form of physical activity at least for 30 minutes, everyday.
- Overweight: If you are overweight or obese, then you have a higher risk of developing breast cancer. To prevent this from happening, in addition to keeping yourself active, you should also opt for regular checkups and ensure you consume a clean and healthy diet.
- Alcohol consumption: Studies suggest that alcohol consumption is related to the risk of development of breast cancer.
- Getting pregnant after 30: Risk of breast cancer can also increase for women who conceive after the age of 30.
- Intaking hormones: There are some hormone replacement therapies, usually taken during menopause that can raise the risk for breast cancer when taken for more than five years. There are some oral contraceptives (birth control pills) that have been found to increase breast cancer risk as well. Its ideal to consult with your doctor before you get on these pills.
In addition to these, smoking and exposure to chemicals can also cause cancer.
Breast Cancer: Red Flags Every Woman Must Watch Out
Different women may have different symptoms of breast cancer. While some may not exhibit any signs or symptoms at all. But here are a few you must look out for.
- Nipple discharge other than breast milk. Consider it as a major red flag if you notice blood oozing out.
- If there is a lump in the breast or underarm.
- Flaky skin in the nipple area or on the breast.
- Pain in the breast area.
- In case of any change in the size or the shape of the breast.
How to distinguish between a non-cancerous and cancerous breast lump?
The non-cancerous lumps are often caused by breast cysts or abscesses. In most cases, they are painful and are easily detectable. On the other hand, here are some of the red flags for cancerous breast lumps:
- They may be hard to touch.
- The lump is usually located at the outer or the upper part of the breast.
- They may be really difficult to move, unlike other soft lumps in the breast.
What Is The Diagnosis For Breast Cancer?
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If you are at an increased risk of breast cancer or have major symptoms, the first step is to get properly tested.
Here are some common ways to diagnose:
- Breast examinations: Your doctor will examine your breast and also the lymph nodes in your armpit.
- Mammogram: It uses low-energy X-rays to examine the human breast for diagnosis and screening.
- Ultrasound: Sometimes, a breast ultrasound is done to find out if a problem found by a mammogram or physical exam may be a cyst filled with fluid or a solid tumour.
- Biopsy: It is a process to remove a sample of breast tissue for testing.
- Breast magnetic resonance Imagine (MRI): The test uses large magnets and radio frequencies to search for cancer.
- BRCA gene test: Women with inherited mutations in genes can get a BRCA gene test. This blood test will help to determine if you have mutations in your DNA that increase the risk of breast cancer.
Treatment For Breast Cancer
If you have been detected with cancer, the doctor may recommend a course of the treatment based on your case. Some of the common treatments used in case of breast cancer include:
- Radiation therapy: It is a treatment that uses high doses of radiation to kill cancer cells and shrink tumours.
- Chemotherapy: This treatment process usually works by keeping the cancer cells from growing, dividing, and making more cells.
- Hormone therapy: Doctors recommend this treatment for women with tumours that are hormone receptor-positive. It does not help women whose tumours don’t have hormone receptors.
- Targeted Therapy: It uses drugs that block the growth of breast cancer cells in specific ways.
- Surgery: Your doctor can recommend surgery for various reasons. For instance, to relieve symptoms of advanced cancer or maybe to restore the breast’s shape after removing the tumour.
Rising Risk Of Breast Cancer In Singaporean Women
As per 2009 data, breast cancer is the leading cause of malignancy among Singapore women. It accounted for 29.7 per cent of all female cancers.
The study further revealed that over 1,100 new cases surface annually and approximately 270 women die in Singapore each year from breast cancer.
Breast cancer incidence was also consistent across all three ethnic groups – Malays, Chinese, and Indians in the multiethnic population of Singapore.
Unfortunately, Singapore has among the highest breast cancer incidence in Asia. Some possible explanations cited behind this include rapid urbanisation, improvement in socioeconomic status, and adoption of a western lifestyle.
Hence, the importance of early detection with regular monitoring is so important.
The guidelines on breast screening say:
- Do monthly breast examinations when you turn 39 years and above.
- Women between the age of 40-49 years need to go in for monthly breast examinations and annual screening mammography.
- There needs to be a monthly breast self-examination and biennially screening mammography for women who are 50 years and above.
COVID-19’s Impact On Breast Cancer Diagnosis
Coronavirus pandemic caused major havoc across the world, including its impact on other diseases. For instance, due to the fear of contracting COVID, overcrowded hospitals led to a delay in breast cancer diagnosis and treatment.
CDC data throws light on this scenario. “The total number of cancer screening tests received by women through CDC’s National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program (Early Detection Program) slumped by 87 per cent for breast cancer during April 2020. This is in comparison to all the previous five-year averages for that month.”
In order to prevent breast cancer, adopt an early screening approach to get proactive and take charge of our health.
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