The Causes Of Breast Cancer – How The Cancer Develops

Breast cancer develops when the breast cells have lost control over cell division. This causes the abnormal (cancerous) cells to accumulate and form a lump-like structure called tumor, which eventually spreads to other parts of the breast, the lymph nodes, and to the rest of the body. While the definite causes of breast cancer are not known, it has been found that the interaction between the genetic makeup of an individual and the environment causes cancer.

causes of breast cancer

Advanced age and late menopause are two common causes of breast cancer.

Causes Of Breast Cancer – Factors That Put Certain Women At Risk

Generally women are at a higher risk of developing breast cancer than men. Several risk factors that can increase the chances of a woman acquiring this disease have been identified. Here are some of them.

  • Genetics

    About 5 to 10% of all breast cancers have been found to be linked to BRCA1, BRCA2, and TP53 genes. Abnormalities in these genes have been associated with breast cancer. The risk of the woman getting breast cancer increases if she has a family history of of the disease.

  • Advanced Age

    This is one of the most common causes of breast cancer, as it has been found that about 80% of breast cancer cases are found in women who are above 50 years of age. As age advances, the risk of developing breast cancer increases.

  • A History Of Breast Cancer

    Women who are breast cancer survivors are at a higher risk of developing cancer than  women who have no history of cancer. In the case of the former, the cancerous growth is likely to recur later in life.

  • Non-Cancerous Breast Lumps

    If the non-cancerous lumps found in a woman’s breast are not treated in time, they carry the risk of turning cancerous.

  • Thick Breast Tissue

    Women whose breast tissues are thicker than normal are more likely to have breast cancer.

  • Estrogen Exposure

    The estrogen hormone is produced in a woman’s body from the time she gets her first period to the time she experiences menopause. Estrogen stimulates the division of breast cells. Women who start their period early in life and experience menopause late in life are at an increased risk of facing breast cancer. This is because of a longer duration of exposure to estrogen. If a breast cell has the abnormal gene, with the help of estrogen, the cells multiply and result in a cancerous lump.

  • Radiation Exposure

    Exposure to high doses of X-rays and radiation from CT scans makes the woman more susceptible to breast cancer. Studies have found that women who have been subjected to X-rays run the risk of developing cancer later in life.

  • Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT)

    Women who have undergone HRT after menopause also face the risk of ending up with breast cancer.

  • Obesity

    Studies have found that the estrogen level is high in obese women who are going through menopause. A high dose of estrogen exposure leaves these women vulnerable to the cancer of the breast.

  • Height

    Certain studies have also found that tall women are at a higher risk of developing breast cancer than their shorter counterparts. However, there is no concrete evidence to support this theory.

  • Alcohol Consumption

    Women who are alcoholic are also key candidates for breast cancer.

  • Environmental Factors

    According to research, women who work in industries that use carcinogens, such as the automobile industries, metal works, plastic industries, agriculture, and laboratories, are at a high risk of being hit with breast cancer.

A history of breast cancer is also a key cause of breast cancer.

A key cause of breast cancer is the patient’s history of cancerous growth.

As the causes of breast cancer are not definitively known, the best you can do is stay away from known carcinogens and reduce the factors that can put you in the high risk bracket of developing breast cancer. Ensure that you go in for regular checkups, so that if you have any cancerous growth in your breast, it can be diagnosed and treated at the earliest. Also, don’t ignore lumps in the breast or other breast cancer symptoms and consult a doctor immediately.

Breast Cancer Symptoms – Signs That Spell Danger

Breast cancer symptoms are usually visible, and this helps in quickly spotting them and taking further measures. The symptoms of breast cancer include skin changes, and lumps or swelling in the breast.

breast cancer symptoms

Lumps located in the region of the underarms is one of the most common breast cancer symptoms.

However, in many cases, there might be no evident breast cancer symptoms till the disease reaches a particular stage. Otherwise, the symptoms might be triggered by non-cancerous conditions like cyst or infections and may wrongfully point towards breast cancer.

The Common Breast Cancer Symptoms And Signs

The most common signs and symptoms of breast cancer have been given below.

  • The Presence Of A Lump

    One of the first breast cancer symptoms is a lump that develops in the breast or underarms. These lumps are mostly painless and might be prickly in nature. Most breast cancer cases are diagnosed after a lump is found in the breast.

    Unusual swelling also presents in and around the breasts, armpit, and collar bone even before the lump appears in the breasts or underarms.

  • Pain Along The Breasts

    In many cases, the lump or swelling is not painful, although women might experience pain in the breast in some instances. This pain is similar to the pain experienced during the menstrual cycle, although it is severe and persists for longer time.

  • Changes In Breast Shape And Size

    The shape, size, and temperature of the breast might change due to breast cancer, and this is one of the most noticeable breast cancer symptoms.

    The breast might enlarge or shrink in size abnormally in the affected part, and in many cases, the breast flattens in a particular area or develops a dimple. This might indicate the presence of an invisible tumor.

  • Warm Sensation On The Breast

    The temperature of the breast also becomes relatively warmer than normal. This might indicate an advanced stage of breast cancer that’s also known as inflammatory breast cancer.

  • Changes In Skin Texture

    The surface of the skin becomes red and the pores on the skin enlarge. The skin might also become itchy, resembling the texture of an orange peel.

The skin on the nipple might become thick, itchy, red, scaly, or flaky. In some cases, the nipple might also become inverted. A pus-like thick discharge that might be clear, yellow, or milky might ooze from the nipple even when you’re not breastfeeding.

Once you spot these breast cancer symptoms, it is important that you consult your doctor immediately to go through the diagnostic procedure.

Breast Cancer Stages – Understanding The Condition

Breast cancer develops in the tissues of the breasts and this condition can affect both men as well as women. The disease progresses in marked breast cancer stages, and effective treatment measures can be carried out based on the stage of the cancer. This is why it’s vital to learn about the stages and types of breast cancer.

breast cancer stages

There are four primary breast cancer stages and each of them has certain characteristic signs.

There are several types of breast cancer, and the most common ones are:

  • Ductal Carcinoma: The cancer develops in the milk ductus, which passes milk from the breast to the nipple.
  • Lobular Carcinoma: The cancer develops in the lobules that produce milk.

Breast cancer is one of the most common types of cancer and affects 1 in 8 women worldwide. It is also the main cause of cancer-related death in women. The prevalence of breast cancer is more in the United States of America and the United Kingdom, followed by countries like Australia, and New Zealand.

Once breast cancer has been diagnosed, several tests are carried out in order to determine if the cancer has spread inside the breast or to the neighboring tissues or organs of the body. Charting out the breast cancer stages can help in formulating a treatment plan.

The Four Breast Cancer Stages

There are four breast cancer stages overall, and they are characterized by the details provided below. Some of the stages are divided into further sub-stages too.

Stage 0

Abnormally dividing cells develop in the milk ducts and the lobules where milk is produced. This is an early stage, so the cancerous cells would not have spread to other tissues in the breast.

Stage I

This stage is further divided into 2 sub-stages:

  • Stage IA

    The cancer is in the form of a tumor that’s about 2 centimeters in length and has not spread to the neighboring tissues.

  • Stage IB

    Small lumps of cancer cells can be found in the lymph nodes. The tumor in the breast might be present (about 2 centimeters) or absent.

Stage II

This stage is again sub-divided into 2 stages.

  • Stage IIA

    In this stage, the tumor is absent in the breast. Any tumor that’s present is usually less than 2 centimeters in size. However, smaller tumors of about 2 millimeters are found in the lymph nodes near the breast bone or in 1 to 3 axillary lymph nodes. In some cases, the tumors in the lymph nodes can be between 2 to 5 centimeters in length.

  • Stage IIB

    A small group of cancerous cells, not more than 0.2 millimeters in length, can be seen in the lymph nodes. The cancer also spreads to the axillary lymph nodes, and in some cases, the tumor size can be more than 5 centimeters.

Stage III

This stage is sub-divided into 3 stages.

  • Stage IIIA

    In some cases the tumor in the breast might be absent. If the tumor is present, it might be of any size, mostly larger than 5 centimeters. About 4 to 9 axillary lymph nodes or the lymph nodes that are close to the breast bone will feature a small cluster of cancerous cells.

  • Stage IIIB

    In this stage, tumors of different sizes are often found in about 9 axillary lymph nodes and the lymph nodes that are close to the breast bone. The cancer spreads to the chest wall and other parts of the breast, causing swelling and ulcers.

  • Stage IIIC

    Tumors of different sizes affect more than 10 axillary lymph nodes, the lymph nodes above or below the collarbone, and the lymph nodes that are near the breast bone. This stage is again sub-divided into operable (when the tumor can be removed surgically) and inoperable stages (when the tumor cannot be removed surgically).

Stage IV

This is the last of the four breast cancer stages, and in this case, the cancer would have already spread to other parts of the body like the brain, bones, lungs and liver. This form of breast cancer is unfortunately not curable, although disease management measures can be adopted based on the physician’s advice.

Learning about the four different breast cancer stages can help you understand the disease better, and evaluate the treatment options. Prompt medical attention is essential when the primary symptoms are exhibited.

Breast Cancer Treatment – How To Counter The Disease

Breast cancer is caused by malignant growth in the breast tissue. It occurs mainly in women, and occasionally in men. Depending upon the stage of the cancer, several options are available to the patients for breast cancer treatment.

breast cancer treatment

Radiation therapy is used for breast cancer treatment as it is known to increase survival rates in women with breast cancer.

The Basics Of Breast Cancer Treatment

The treatment options can be classified into two groups: standard treatments and treatments that are done as part of clinical trials.

Six Standard Breast Cancer Treatment Options

There are six options available for standard breast cancer treatment:

  1. Surgery

    This is the most common type of treatment used for patients with breast cancer. In the surgical treatment of breast cancer, first a tissue sample or a lymph node from the breast is taken for microscopic examination and confirmation of the cancer. Once the abnormal cells have been identified, depending on the stage of the cancer, surgery is advised.

    Here are some of the types of surgeries performed on the patients as part of breast cancer treatment:

    (a) Breast Conserving Surgery:

    Doctors surgically remove only the part of the breast that is affected by cancer, while retaining the remaining, normal part of the breast.

    (b) Lumpectomy:

    Doctors remove the cancerous lump that has formed in the breast, along with the normal tissue that surrounds the lump.

    (c) Partial Mastectomy:

    The part of the breast which is affected by cancer is removed along with the normal part of the breast which surrounds the affected region.

    (d) Segmental Mastectomy:

    The region below the cancerous growth, which generally forms the lining over the chest muscles, is also removed in addition to the affected tissue.

    (e) Total Mastectomy:

    In this procedure, the cancer-affected breast is removed completely by surgery.

    (f) Modified Radical Mastectomy:

    This is a modified version of the total mastectomy, as in this surgery, the affected breast, the affected lymph nodes under the arm, the lining of the chest muscles as well as the part of the chest wall under the affected area are removed surgically.

  2. Sentinel Lymph Node Biopsy, Followed By Surgery:

    The sentinel lymph node is the first among the lymph nodes to get affected by the tumor in the breast. The biopsy of the sentinel lymph node is carried out during the surgery.

    A radioactive blue dye is injected near the tumor, and it flows into the sentinel lymph node through the lymph ducts. After confirming the presence of cancer in the biopsied tissue by microscopic examination, the affected lymph node is removed.

  3. Radiation Therapy:

    High energy X-rays that have the capability to destroy the cancerous cells are commonly used in radiation therapy. There are two kinds of radiation therapy.

    (a) Internal Radiation Therapy:

    The radioactive chemicals required for the therapy are packed in needles or catheters and placed directly on the area affected by cancer.

    (b) External Radiation Therapy:

    Radioactive rays are passed externally on the area affected by cancer.

  4. Chemotherapy:

    In chemotherapy, specific drugs are used to prevent cancer growth and kill existent cancer cells. Two of the most commonly used types of chemotherapy are:

    (a) Systemic Chemotherapy:

    The drugs are given to the patient either orally or by injecting them into his muscles or veins.

    (b) Regional Chemotherapy:

    The drugs are administered directly onto the region affected by cancer.

  5. Hormone Therapy:

    The estrogen hormone produced by the ovaries is found to help the growth of cancer in the breast. By using drugs, radiations or surgery, the hormone production is reduced or stopped to prevent the cancer from growing further.

  6. Targeted Therapy:

    Targeted therapy uses drugs that can specifically identify and destroy the cancer cells without affecting the normal cells.

    There are two kinds of targeted therapies that are commonly used:

    (a) Monoclonal Antibodies:

    The antibodies that are made from specific immune system cells are used for this type of treatment. These antibodies have the capability to differentiate between normal cells and cancer cells. They destroy the cancer-causing cells and prevent them from growing further.

    Monoclonal Antibodies are usually used alone or in combination with other treatment options depending on the stage of the breast cancer.

    (b) Tyrosine Kinase Inhibitors:

    These are specific drugs that block the signals required for the growth of cancer cells. They are also used alone or in combination with other treatment options.

Apart from the breast cancer treatment options mentioned above, several others are available as part of clinical trials. For example, in some cases, a high dose of chemotherapy with stem cell transplant is used as a form of treatment, wherein high doses of drugs are given to destroy the cancer cells. Further, normal healthy stem cells are transplanted to replace the destroyed cells. However, such treatments are used only in clinical trials as they pose serious side effects to the patients and might even cause death in some cases.

Breast Cancer Diagnosis – Detecting The Presence Of Cancer

In a majority of cases, breast cancer diagnosis is done only after the associated signs and symptoms start to appear.

breast cancer diagnosis

Biopsy is conducted as part of breast cancer diagnosis to collect sample tissue to detect cancer.

When Should You Opt For Breast Cancer Diagnosis?

Women are advised to undergo cancer screening regularly as it can help ensure that the breast cancer is detected at an early stage. This would in turn help to evaluate the prognosis and the choice of treatment. Timely treatment can ensure that the cancer is not given a chance to spread to the other areas of the breast and the body.

Breast Cancer Diagnosis – The Variety Of Tests Involved

Some of the tests commonly used to detect breast cancer are:

  1. Breast Self-Exam:

    This is the simplest way to detect any lumps in the breast. Any unusual changes like discoloration, dimpling, sores, skin peeling, or any changes associated with the nipple should be brought to the notice of the doctor. The doctor will then clinically examine the breast and the underarms for any signs of lumps or tumors. If any abnormalities are found, he is likely to advise further tests for breast cancer diagnosis.

  2. Imaging Tests:

    (a) Mammogram:

    This is a common method used to screen the breast using a specific kind of X-rays to check for abnormalities in the breast tissue.

    (b) Ultrasound:

    In this method, sound waves are used to create images of different sections of the breast. By careful examination of the images, the doctor is able to identify any abnormality, such as thickened tissue, lump, or tumor.

    (c) Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI):

    This test is usually used when a lump or a tumor is found during a clinical examination. This method uses magnetic and radio waves to create images of the breast, which helps in determining the stage of the cancer and also to check if the cancer has spread to other areas of the breast and to other the organs of the body.

  3. Surgical Tests:

    (a)  Biopsy:

    A sample of the breast cells that show abnormality is taken to check for the presence of cancerous cells and to determine the stage of the cancer.

    (b) Sentinel Node Biopsy:

    This is commonly used to check if the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes located under the arms.

    (c) Ductal Lavage:

    This test is performed by taking a sample from the mild ducts using a small thin tube, and then microscopically examining the cells for the presence of cancer.

  4. Molecular Analysis:

    In many cases, the doctors advise tests that can help determine the genetic makeup of the tumor cells, and then suggest the best treatment options.

    (a) Human Epidermal Growth Factor 2 (HER2) Test:

    Approximately 20 to 25% of breast cancer cases have an increased number of the HER2 gene in the cells. This gene generates the protein required for the tumor cells to grow rapidly. It is important to know the status of the HER2 gene as it helps in prescribing specific drugs to treat the cancer effectively.

    (b) Estrogen And Progesterone Receptor Test:

    About 70 to 80% of breast cancer patients have estrogen and progesterone receptors in their cells. It is important to know the status of these receptors as it helps determine the ideal choice of treatment and identify the risk of recurrence.

    (c) Ki67:

    This is a specific test used to determine the time taken by the tumor cells to divide, and it helps outline the best and most effective form of treatment.

  5. Genetic Test:

    This test, conducted to determine the risk of recurrence in individuals with breast cancer, screens the genes associated with breast cancer. There are 2 kinds of genetic tests that are commonly used:

    (a) Mammaprint:

    Mammaprint, a test for breast cancer diagnosis, has been approved by the US FDA. In this test, about 70 genes are screened to check for mutations that would determine the risk of developing the cancer again.

    (b) Oncotype Dx:

    This test looks at 16 genes associated with breast cancer and 5 reference genes, to evaluate the risk of the patient developing breast cancer again within 10 years after being diagnosed with stage I or II cancer.

  6. Blood Test:

    Several parameters in the blood have to be evaluated when a woman is suspected to have breast cancer. For example, blood electrolytes (calcium and potassium), complete blood count, total bilirubin count, and enzymes (ALT and AST) are some of the parameters that appear abnormal in case of breast cancer. The tumor marker is also measured in many cases in order to monitor the recurrence of cancer.

  7. Additional Tests:

    Doctors advise some additional tests depending on the symptoms and the stage of the cancer. Some of them are:

    (a) Chest X-ray:

    This is usually done to check if the cancer has spread to the lungs.

    (b) Bone Scan:

    A radioactive tracer is used to scan the bones to see if the cancer has spread to the bones as well.

    (c) Computed Tomography:

    This scan is used to screen for tumors in lymph nodes, lungs, bones, and the liver.

    (d) Positron Emission Tomography (PET):

    PET is conducted by injecting a small quantity of radioactive glucose into the patient’s body. The cancer cells absorb the dye more than the normal cells as they require more energy to divide. The dye gets picked up by the scanner, thus indicating the presence of cancer.

Breast cancer, like other forms of cancer, can prove fatal if left undetected and untreated. It is best to undergo regular screenings for breast cancer diagnosis, to ensure that in case of the presence of breast cancer, it can be treated effectively at the earliest.