1 in 8 women will develop breast cancer in her lifetime . With its 2 million new cases diagnosed annually and taking into account that less than 1% develop in men, breast cancer is the disease that affects women the most.
Every year, on October 19, World Day Against Breast Cancer is celebrated, a day that remembers the importance of continuing to research and fight against this terrible disease that, year after year, affects millions of women throughout the world. world.
However, it must be remembered that prevention is possible and that, although zero risk can never be achieved, especially if the genetic susceptibility factor is strong, lifestyle changes can help reduce the probability of suffering from it.
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And even when the disease appears, advances in medicine and cancer treatments have allowed the prognosis to get better and better. Today, breast cancer survival is close to 90%. And to understand the nature of this disease, in today’s article we will analyze both its causes and its symptoms , as well as the ways to prevent its appearance and associated treatments.
What is breast cancer?
As its name suggests, breast cancer is a malignant tumor that develops in the cells of the breasts, glands that, in mammals, are specialized in the production of milk. And being one of the structures that undergo the most changes throughout life, they are also the regions of the body most prone to developing tumors.
Like any other type of cancer, it consists of an uncontrolled and abnormal growth of the cells that make up the tissues of our own body. In a natural way, division after division, these cells can accumulate errors or mutations that, on occasions, can lead to a loss of their ability to regulate the cycles of division.
When this happens, cells grow uncontrollably and lose their functionality , which is why a mass of cells ends up forming with a very high and abnormal rate of division that has nothing to do either at an anatomical or physiological level with the tissue in the body. found.
If this mass of cells does not affect the health of the person, does not harm the organs or tissues in which it is found and there is no risk of it spreading to other regions of the body, we are dealing with a benign tumor. But if it damages our health, there is a risk that it will metastasize (migrate to other organs or tissues) and, ultimately, endanger our life, we are already talking about a malignant tumor or cancer.
These mutations can occur by mere biological chance, but they can also be caused by injuries that we cause, such as what happens to lung cells and tobacco smoke , thus causing lung cancer.
In the case of the cells of the mammary glands, these injuries, although they are not due to “aggressions” that we do to our body, they are due to the physiological and structural changes that the breasts suffer.
The mammary glands undergo more changes than any other organ. They grow during puberty and during pregnancy, in addition to fluctuating in size throughout menstrual cycles. Not to mention that, entering menopause, they atrophy and their content is replaced by fat. The consequences of all these changes are suffered by the cells of the mammary glands, victims of the alterations caused by the hormones of our own body.
Continuously going through anatomical and physiological changes makes the mammary glands more prone to developing tumors than any other region of the body, because by dividing and continually repairing, cells are more likely to undergo mutations that end with the alteration of the reproductive rhythm.
The fact that its appearance is due to the very functionality of female hormones makes prevention difficult. But it does not mean that it is impossible.
The causes of breast cancer remain unclear , which explains the difficulty in preventing its development and, therefore, its high incidence. And it is that its development is due to a complex interaction between genetics, heredity, lifestyle, environment and hormonal factors. This means that it is still not fully understood why some women suffer from it and others do not.
However, there are some risk factors that, although they are not a clear trigger, such as smoking with lung cancer or Human Papillomavirus infection with cervical cancer, they do increase the probability that, if the person complies with them, they will develop breast cancer throughout their life.
Obviously, the main risk factor is being a woman. And it is that although breast cancer in men exists, more than 99% of diagnoses occur in women. In addition, advanced age (the risk of developing it increases with age, being relevant after 40 years), having a clinical history of pathologies in the breasts, having a family history (it is not always fulfilled, but 5% of the breast cancers can be due to inherited genes), being obese, having never gotten pregnant, having had the first child after age 30, starting menopause later than normal, having had the first menstruation before age 12, binge drinking, not doing enough sports, having been exposed to high doses of radiation, having undergone hormonal estrogen therapy …
All these situations are not at all a condemnation of suffering from breast cancer (indeed, there are women who suffer it without complying with one of them), but it has been seen that, statistically speaking, women who comply with these risk are more likely to suffer it. The more of these circumstances are fulfilled, the more likely it will be that breast cancer appears throughout its life, so it will be more important to follow the forms of prevention and be attentive to the symptoms and clinical manifestations.
The symptoms and when they appear depend on many factors, which often makes early detection difficult, which is very important to ensure a good prognosis. Depending on the exact location of the tumor, its size, the general health of the person, the size of the breasts, etc., it may be more or less easy to detect the presence of the tumor.
The main sign and what to look for when examinations are done is the presence of an internal lump in the breasts, that is, a more or less large thickening whose texture feels different from the rest of the breast tissue .
In addition, morphological changes in one of the breasts (do not expect it to hurt because it usually does not do until later stages), changes in the skin of the breast, dimpling, inversion (sinking) of the nipple, peeling of the skin of the area around the nipple, redness in the skin of the breasts, etc., are some of the first symptoms and which should be addressed immediately to the doctor.
In more advanced stages, these clinical signs may be accompanied by breast pain, bone pain, unexplained weight loss, ulcer formation, swelling of the lymph nodes in the armpit, and pus-like fluid draining from the nipples that can sometimes be accompanied by blood.
In any case, when these advanced symptoms appear, it is usually too late to guarantee a good prognosis, since the cancer has probably spread. Therefore, it is vitally important to be attentive to the first symptoms , because when the tumor is detected quickly, the success of the treatment is usually very high.
As we have said, the reasons why some women develop breast cancer and others do not remain unclear. This explains why prevention is difficult and, therefore, its incidence is so high .
However, this does not mean that prevention is impossible. And although it is not a preventive technique as such, the best weapon is to detect the tumor in the very early stages of its development. Therefore, once you enter the risk age, you should talk to your doctor about when to do routine tests and exams and, above all, learn how to do breast self-exams at home.
And it is that going in search of the lumps and, if they are found, going immediately to the doctor can make a difference. Just as they can do, speaking of prevention itself, changes in lifestyle.
Doing sports regularly, staying at a healthy weight, avoiding hormonal therapies as much as possible, following a healthy diet, not smoking or excess alcohol and, ultimately, following a healthy lifestyle.
Although the risk never reaches 0 because genetics, biological chance and the circumstances of life that we cannot choose (when the first menstruation comes, when do you get pregnant, when does menopause arrive …) have a very important weight, Yes it is true that taking care of yourself significantly reduces risk.
Prevention, obviously, is not always possible . If it were, more than 2 million new cases would not be diagnosed each year. But if the disease is suffered, it must be very clear that, thanks to advances in medicine, the prognosis is good in most cases.
The most important thing is to detect it in the initial stages, a phase in which surgery to remove the tumor will almost always be sufficient. Depending on the nature of the tumor, the operation will be more or less invasive. If it is small and perfectly localized, a lumpectomy may be sufficient, that is, removing only the tumor and a small region of surrounding healthy tissue for safety.
If it is large, a mastectomy may be necessary, that is, an operation in which all of the breast tissue is removed. However, keep in mind that this is life-saving and that more and more medical progress is being made to try to preserve the skin and improve the appearance of the breast.
The ideal is to be able to resolve the cancer with surgery, although this is not always possible. In this case, it may be necessary to resort to chemotherapy, radiation therapy, immunotherapy, or a combination of both. And although they generate fear for being aggressive therapies, the prognosis is still good.
In fact, when the tumor is detected before it has spread through the blood to other organs and tissues, that is, before it has metastasized, the survival rate is between 83% and 90% . And if the breasts are regularly inspected for changes, it is almost certain that it can be diagnosed in the early stages.