Breast cancer is the second most prevalent cancer in the world, beaten only by lung cancer. 1% of all deaths are breast cancer related and 7% of all cancer deaths are breast cancer related. Those statistics may not seem all that shocking to those who are not affected by breast cancer. But to breast cancer patients, those statistics can mean life, or death.
In South Africa, breast cancer is the most common non-dermatological cancer among women (16.6 %). Annually, approximately 3 785 cases of breast cancer are reported in South Africa alone.
What Is Breast Cancer?
Breast cancer is a malignant (cancer) tumor that starts from cells of the breast. It is found mostly in women, but men can get breast cancer, too. A woman’s breast is made up of glands that make breast milk (called lobules), ducts (small tubes that carry milk from the lobules to the nipple), fatty and connective tissue, blood vessels, and lymph (pronounced limf) vessels. Most breast cancers begin in the cells that line the ducts (ductal cancer), some begin in the lobules (lobular cancer), and a small number start in other tissues.
Benign breast lumps
Most breast lumps are benign, this means they are not cancer. Benign breast tumors are abnormal growths, but they do not spread outside of the breast and they are not life threatening. But some benign breast lumps can increase a woman’s risk of getting breast cancer. Most lumps are caused by fibrocystic changes. Cysts are fluid-filled sacs. Fibrosis is the formation of scar-like tissue. These changes can cause breast swelling and pain. They often happen just before a period is about to begin. The breasts may feel lumpy, and sometimes there is a clear or slightly cloudy nipple discharge.
Breast cancer terms
It can be hard to understand some of the words your health care team uses to talk about breast cancer. Here are the key words used to describe breast cancer:
Carcinoma: This is a term used to describe a cancer that begins in the lining layer of organs such as the breast. Nearly all breast cancers are carcinomas (either ductal carcinomas or lobular carcinomas).
Adenocarcinoma: An adenocarcinoma is a type of cancer that starts in glandular tissue (tissue that makes and secretes a substance). The ducts and lobules of the breast are glandular tissue (they make breast milk), so cancers starting in these areas are sometimes called adenocarcinomas.
Carcinoma in situ: This term is used for the early stage of cancer, when it is still only in the layer of cells where it began. In breast cancer, in situ means that the cancer cells are only in the ducts (ductal carcinoma in situ) or lobules (lobular carcinoma in situ). They have not spread into deeper tissues in the breast or to other organs in the body. They are sometimes referred to as noninvasive breast cancers.
Invasive (infiltrating) carcinoma: An invasive cancer is one that has already grown beyond the layer of cells where it started (unlike carcinoma in situ). Most breast cancers are invasive carcinomas — either invasive ductal carcinoma or invasive lobular carcinoma.
Sarcoma: Sarcomas are cancers that start from connective tissues such as muscle tissue, fat tissue or blood vessels. Sarcomas of the breast are rare.Download CANSA’s brochure on Breast Cancer
Breast Cancer myths
Finding a lump in your breast means you have breast cancer.
If you discover a persistent lump in your breast or any changes in breast tissue, it is very important that you see a physician immediately. However, 8 out of 10 breast lumps are benign, or not cancerous. Sometimes women stay away from medical care because they fear what they might find. Take charge of your health by performing routine breast self-exams, establishing ongoing communication with your doctor, and scheduling regular mammograms.
Men do not get breast cancer.
Quite the contrary. Each year it is estimated that approximately 1,700 men will be diagnosed with breast cancer and 450 will die. While this percentage is still small, men should also give themselves regular breast self-exams and note any changes to their physicians.
A mammogram can cause breast cancer to spread.
A mammogram, or X-ray of the breast, is one of the best tools available for the early detection of breast cancer. It CANNOT cause cancer to spread, nor can the pressure put on the breast from the mammogram. Do not let tales of other people’s experiences keep you from having a mammogram. Base your decision on your physician’s recommendation and be sure to discuss any questions or concerns with your doctor.
Having a family history of breast cancer means you will get it.
While women who have a family history of breast cancer are in a higher risk group, most women who have breast cancer have no family history. If you have a mother, daughter, sister, or grandmother who had breast cancer, you should have a mammogram five years before the age of their diagnosis, or starting at age 35.
Breast cancer is contagious.
You cannot catch breast cancer or transfer it to someone else’s body. Breast cancer is the result of uncontrolled cell growth in your own body.However, you can protect yourself by being aware of the risk factors and following an early detection plan.
Knowing you have changes in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene can help you prevent breast cancer.
While alterations in these genes in men and women can predispose an individual to an increased risk of breast cancer, only 5% to 10% of patients actually have this mutation. This is not an absolute correlation. Like your age or having a family history of breast cancer, it’s a factor you just can’t control. But you can let your physician know, perform regular breast self-exams, and focus on the fact your chances of not having this disease are greater than 90%.
Antiperspirants and deodorants cause breast cancer.
Researchers at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) are not aware of any conclusive evidence linking the use of underarm antiperspirants or deodorants and the subsequent development of breast cancer.