Besides lung cancer, breast cancer has the highest death rates in American women. Approximately 41,760 women in the US are expected to die from the condition every year, with 1 in 8 women developing breast cancer over the course of their lifetime.

However, the incident rates have been decreasing since 2000. A reduction of 7% occurred between 2002 and 2003 when hormone replacement therapy (HRT) was significantly re-evaluated as a treatment following a study on HRT and increased breast cancer risk.

With the severity of the condition being as it is, we believe it is of great importance that both female and male sufferers (and their relatives) understand the symptoms of breast cancer and how to manage the side effects of treatment.

What are the symptoms of breast cancer?

The most common symptom of breast cancer is a lump on your breast. These areas of thickened tissue are usually not cancerous, but they should always be checked by a doctor. Bear in mind that this lump is unlikely to cause pain or irritation; breast pain is not a typical symptom of the cancer.

In addition, you should visit your doctor if you notice any of the following:

  • A lump or swelling in either one of your armpits
  • A change in the size or shape of one or both breasts
  • Dimpling on the skin of your breasts
  • A rash around or on your nipple
  • A change in the appearance of your nipple

Men can also contract breast cancer, although it is only in rare cases (2,670 American men will be diagnosed a year). The condition has almost exactly the same symptoms and usually occurs in those over 60. In these rare instances, it is important that any male with a family history of breast cancer routinely visits their doctor and attempts to lower the level of estrogen in their body.

Is there a specific cause of breast cancer?

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As with a lot of cancers, the exact cause is not fully understood. It is for this reason why doctors will advise those with higher risk factors to assess themselves more regularly than others.

Age plays a significant role here – similarly to prostate cancer – as breast cancer is most likely to occur in women who have been through the menopause.

Other contributing factors include:

Exposure to estrogen Estrogen occasionally stimulates breast cancer cells and causes them to grow. Ovaries produce estrogen to regulate menstrual cycles – therefore, if you start puberty early and have the menopause later in life, you have a higher exposure to estrogen. The same is true if you choose not to have children, as production is not interrupted by pregnancy. 

HRT – If you take HRT for longer than one year, you have a higher risk of the condition than those who have never tried the therapy. The risk levels will fall once you stop taking the therapy, but they will remain heightened for a period of around 10 years.

Contraceptive pill – Research has proven that women who take the contraceptive pill have a slightly increased risk of developing breast cancer. However, like HRT, risk levels have a 10-year cooling period and will decrease when you cease taking it.

Dense breast tissue – Breasts are made up of thousands of glands (lobules) that produce milk. This form of tissue has a higher concentration of breast cells than other tissue. As this tissue is denser, mammograms (breast scans) can be more difficult to read and the potential cancerous cells are higher in number. Therefore, the denser the tissue, the higher the likelihood.

History of the condition – If you have previously had breast cancer or lumps, then you will be at a higher risk of developing it again. A benign lump will not mean you have cancer right now. However, it may slightly increase your risk of developing the condition in the future.

These contributing factors are harder to avoid than lifestyle choices. Maintaining a balanced diet and engaging in regular exercise can genuinely reduce the likelihood of developing breast cancer.

How do I get diagnosed?

We understand that experiencing symptoms of breast cancer can send patients in a downward spiral of negative thinking and uncertainty. That is why we want to clarify the stages of the diagnostic process.

Your diagnosis will typically begin with mammograms and breast ultrasounds. After finding a lump, you will be referred to a specialist unit. It may be that another scan is conducted, especially if you are under the age of 35 (younger women have denser breasts causing mammograms to be less effective in detecting cancer).

Should any abnormalities be found, a biopsy will need to take place. In this scenario, a sample of cells will be taken from your breast and tested to see if it has any cancerous cells. If you have found the questionable lump in your armpit, it may be necessary to have a needle test on your lymph nodes as well.

This biopsy can be conducted in a number of ways:

Needle aspiration – While not quite a biopsy, needle aspiration is the method used when testing breast cells for cancer or draining a benign cyst.

Needle biopsy – The most common form of biopsy, a needle biopsy takes sample tissue from a lump in your breast. This can be done with the assistance of ultrasound or an X-ray for the purposes of precision.

Vacuum-assisted biopsy – In this circumstance, the needle is attached to a suction tube to aid the gathering of the sample and clear any bleeding.

If you have been diagnosed with cancer, your doctor will attempt to ascertain the stage (whether or not it has spread), grade (the appearance of the cells) and the appropriate treatment.

Can I live with breast cancer?

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A large majority of women will have some form of surgery as part of their treatment, whether that is to:

  • Remove the cancer (or as much as possible) through breast-conserving surgery or mastectomy
  • Determine the spread of the cancer through sentinel lymph node biopsy or axillary lymph node dissection
  • Reconstruct the breast

After such a significant operation, returning to your everyday routine can take time. You should ask for practical assistance wherever necessary and avoid tasks which are physically exhausting.

Pain and stiffness in both your arms and shoulders often follows. If this affects you, it is important that you are aware of which pain medications work best for certain areas before self-medicating.

Of course, these are just the minor after-effects of such an impactful condition and procedure. Your body is very likely to react to the treatment, in severe cases causing an early menopause. It is important that you discuss all of the changes that occur within your body with your doctor to prevent panic or misdiagnosis.

The most important advice we can give is to not feel alone. While we appreciate it can be isolating to undergo such a life event, there are support groups and organizations that are committed to helping those affected by breast cancer.

Our pharmacists are no exception, offering affordable medication to those in need of symptom relief or aftercare. Contact them today for a conversation about your medical needs and how we can help.