Well Being

National Breast Cancer Awareness Month: What Every Woman Needs to Know About Breast Cancer

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breast cancer infographic

Edith Sanford Breast Cancer Foundation/Julep

October is making it the perfect time to talk about it. Taking the time to get educated on the ins and outs of breast cancer is vital to prevention and detection. While many young women may not even have this disease on their radar — most women don't start getting mammograms until their 30s — it can affect any age, any time. Sometimes it's hard to find the motivation to look up something so scary, we get it. But it's important for every woman to know the signs, symptoms, and risks associated with breast cancer so she can own her health.

How common is breast cancer?

The odds of a women developing breast cancer in her life is 12%, which is about a 1 in 8 chance. This may sound small, but breast cancer is the second largest cause of death in women after lung cancer. The odds are you or someone you know will be affected by this disease at some point in your life. But that commonality has become almost a benefit. Since this form is so common, there are several courses of treatment and constant research into breast cancer. The odds of survival after diagnosis are higher than ever at the moment.

Is there any way to prevent breast cancer?

Yes and no. There are definitely lifestyle changes you can make to help curb your likelihood of getting the disease. Things like watching your alcohol intake, weight, and staying physically active, can all be beneficial. There are other, more personal decisions that may have some bearing on your odds of having breast cancer. These include having children, breastfeeding, or the use of birth control. These things are all, of course, personal and the risks associated should be discussed with a doctor.

Unfortunately, there are certain predispositions that cannot be changed. Having a history of breast cancer in your family or the presence of certain genes in your body are unavoidable obstacles. You may also be more likely to develop breast cancer if you've had a benign lump before, like a cyst or harmless tumor. In these situations, knowing the warning signs and how to check yourself for them are more vital than ever to detecting any issues early.

What are some signs and symptoms?

breast cancer signs and symptoms

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One of the most important things to know is how your breasts normally look and feel. So gals, get into the bathroom and get to grabbing! This way if there are any changes or lumps, then you'll know immediately that something's off. But the warning signs can be different for every woman. A lump is, of course, the most common symptom that women think of when they think about breast cancer but there are several signs you may have without even having a lump that could be indicative of something serious.

Some less commonly known breast cancer symptoms include breast swelling, skin dimpling or reddening, pain, nipple retraction, and abnormal nipple discharge. You may also have pain in areas that aren't even your breast. Sometimes the cancer can spread to nearby lymph nodes and cause pain around the armpits or collarbone before you can even tell there is a tumor at all. Bet you didn't think of all that when you thought of breast cancer symptoms, and now you can be on the lookout for serious signs!

How is breast cancer detected?

While the signs and symptoms listed above are all crucial in detecting cancer, sometimes the cancer is there before there are any tangible signs at all. This is why yearly breast cancer screenings are vital. If anything out of the ordinary is seen during a routine check-up, it may be probed further with a breast ultrasound to get a closer look. And if there is a tangible lump? Breast biopsies (basically when a sample of the lump is extracted by needle and tested for specific conditions) are the most common way to get a piece of the lump to test it for cancers. Biopsies are the only way to know if a lump is cancerous without invasive surgery.

How does breast cancer even develop?

This is complicated and science-y, but the basic gist is that changes in DNA causes genes to mutate and become cancerous. There are two types of mutated genes: acquired and inherited. Inherited genes are those you are born with and are relatively rare. Acquired genes are ones that manifest during the course of a woman's life. The tricky part? The cause of most acquired genes is still relatively unknown. Sure, we know alcohol consumption and hormones may potentially affect a woman's risk but there is still no definitive answer on what causes breast cancer.

There are also different kinds of cancer designations based on where the cancer is. If it has not yet spread beyond the breast it's referred to as Ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS). If it does spread to nearby tissue it's referred to as invasive, and also metastatic if it begins to spread to other parts of the body.

What's the course of treatment like for those with breast cancer?

There are all kinds of different treatment plans for someone diagnosed with breast cancer. The fortunate thing is that in most cases there is time to find a treatment plan tailored to the woman. Treatment is dependant on a large number of things. The type of breast cancer, the stage, and the woman's overall health and age are all factors in treatment type.

In general there are two types of breast cancer therapy: local and systemic. Local is used to remove cancer from a limited (i.e. local) area via surgery. This may or may not include radiation to ensure all cancerous cells are gone. Then there is systemic therapy which is a bit more intense. This is the treatment needed for those whose cancer has spread beyond the breast. Types of systemic treatment include chemotherapy, hormone therapy, and targeted therapy in addition to surgery.

Anything else I should know?

While this article gives a good look into what breast cancer is and how you can detect it, it doesn't go over everything. Go explore the internet for info about breast cancer — trust us, there's tons out there. And get in the habit of checking your breasts and being aware of what's happening with your body. Many young women like to think it won't happen to them, but don't be naive enough to think that's actually true. Own your health, own your destiny.

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