A Brief Introduction to the Mysterious World of Breast Cancer
Breast cancer is the commonest form of cancer in women and, after lung cancer, it is the second major cause of cancer death among females. In 2004 no fewer than 186,770 new breast cancer cases were reported according to the American Cancer Society and this figure would seem to be going up on a yearly basis.
It should also be noted that breast cancer is not confined only to women and that some more than 1,800 men were also diagnosed with the disease in 2004 and 362 men died of breast cancer in the same year.
Women’s breasts are complex structures consisting of glands, fat and connective fibrous tissue. They have a number of lobes which are divided into lobules and end in the milk glands and there are also a large number of tiny ducts from the milk glands that connect together and culminate in the nipple.
Eighty percent of breast cancer cases occur in these ducts and this condition is known as infiltrating ductal cancer. It is also fairly common for it to originate in the lobules where it is called lobular cancer. Other forms of cancer are called inflammatory breast cancer.
Pre-cancerous changes (known as ‘in situ’) are also common in women and are changes that have not yet spread from the area of the breast where they started. If these changes occur within the ducts then the condition is called ductal carcinoma in situ or DCIS and where they occur in the lobules they are known as lobular carcinomas in situ or LCIS.
The most serious form of breast cancer is metastatic cancer which involves the spread of a cancer from the place where it began. It generally metastasizes into the lymph nodes under the arms or above the collarbone on the same side of the body as the cancer which results in pain and swelling to the affected area as the lymphatic drainage system is compromised. Other common sites of breast cancer metastasis are the brain, liver and the bones.
Apart from the very obvious factor of gender, age is a critical factor when looking at the risk of contracting breast cancer. Although it can and does appear at any age the risk of getting it certainly rises as you get older. A normal woman aged 30 will normally have a 1 in 280 chance of getting breast cancer by the time she reaches 40. However, this then increases to a 1 in 70 chance when that same women is in her forties.
Family history is also an important risk factor for breast cancer with the risk being particularly high when you have a close relative (like an aunt or mother) who has developed cancer of the breast at a young age.
Although it has yet to be confirmed, there is thought to be a cancer gene that can be passed from mother to daughter.