The Facts of Life

Breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in women between the ages of 20 and 59. More than 39,000 women are expected to die of breast cancer this year, and one out of nine women will develop breast cancer in her lifetime. The National Alliance of Breast Cancer Organizations (NABSCO), a non-profit organization that specializes in breast cancer, said on their website that a woman will die from breast cancer every 13 minutes, and over one million women in the United States have died of this disease since 1970. The cause and cure of breast cancer is unknown. However, the NABSCO website said medical researchers have identified changes in certain genes within breast cells that can be linked to a higher risk for breast cancer. According to their website, “Breast cells contain a variety of genes that normally work cooperatively with a woman’s natural hormones, diet and environment to keep her breasts healthy. Certain genes routinely keep breast cells from dividing and growing out of control and forming tumors. When these genes become altered, changes occur, and a cell no longer can grow correctly.”There are several known risk factors for breast cancer, however, the majority of women who get breast cancer have no known risk factors except being a woman and getting older. The risk of breast cancer increases with age with the average age at diagnosis being 62. No one knows what causes breast cancer exactly. It is known, however, that breast cancer is not contagious or caused by stress or an injury. Many women who have breast cancer don’t even have past incidents with the disease in their family. However, since breast cancer involves altered genes, it is possible that these genetic changes can be inherited from a parent. The Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation lists some risk factors involved with breast cancer: –being a woman –getting older –having a personal history of breast cancer or ovarian cancer –having a family history of breast cancer–having a previous biopsy showing a typical hyperplasia or carcinoma in situ –having your first period before age 12 –starting menopause after age 55 –never having children –having your first child after age 30 –having a mutation in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 breast cancer genes –drinking more than 1 alcoholic drink per day –being overweight after menopause or gaining weight as an adult –currently or recently using combined estrogen and progesterone hormone replacement therapy (HT).Women with breast implants are at risk for breast cancer just as much as women without. It is important that women with implants practice breast self examinations. Even though the cancer can’t spread on the implants themselves, it can spread on the tissue surrounding the implants. Men can also develop breast cancer. The NABSCO website said 1,500 cases of male breast cancer are expected to be diagnosed this year and 400 men will die from it. Men should follow the same treatment as women, as it is just as important for them to use early detection. Early detection is the key to successful treatment of breast cancer. Susie Stone, community education coordinator at Huntsville Memorial Hospital said when breast cancer is detected early, one’s chance of survival is the greatest. The 5-year survival rate for all women diagnosed with breast cancer is 86 percent. The Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation website said if the cancer is confined to the breast and does not spread to other parts of the body, the 5-year survival rate is 95 percent. People should routinely check their breasts for early signs or symptoms of the disease by the way of a breast self exam, clinical breast exam or a mammogram. A breast self exam (BSE) is a personal check up you give yourself. The Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation recommended that women should give themselves breast self exams every month by the age of 20, a few days after the last day of their period. Women who no longer get their period should exam their breasts on the same day each month. To learn how to give yourself a breast self exam, ask your doctor or go to or call 1-800-IM-AWARE (1-800-462-9273) to receive a breast self exam card.Clinical breast exams are another form of early detection of breast cancer. Women should be able to receive clinical breast exams at the gynecologist office or at any other doctors office. The Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation said women should have a clinical breast exam at least every three years between the ages of 20 and 39 and every year after 40.Mammograms, or X-ray pictures of the breast, can also be used for early detection of breast cancer. The Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation said all women 40 and older should have a mammogram every year. However, if you are younger than 40 and you are concerned about your own risk of developing breast cancer, talk to your doctor to find out what your options are regarding early detection. You can still receive a mammogram under the age of 40, but consult a doctor to find out when and how often you should have one. There are different treatments for breast cancer such as mastectomy, lumpectomy, chemotherapy and radiation. A mastectomy is the removal of breast tissue and the whole breast around it. Lumpectomy is the removal of the lump itself. Chemotherapy and radiation are used as treatment, but it depends on the severity of the disease. Stone said that the type, size and spread of breast cancer are all important in determining the stage of breast cancer at diagnosis. “The course of treatment would be determined by the severity of the cancer at diagnosis.” Stone said the treatment of choice is mastectomy, however. “Other treatments other than surgery are chemotherapy and radiation, but any other treatment besides mastectomy would have to be made by the patient and the physician.”Some women do chemotherapy and radiation in combination with the mastectomy as a means of treatment, once again, it depends on the severity of the cancer at diagnosis.

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