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The Long Reach of Breast Cancer


If you weren’t aware of just how many women suffer from breast cancer, a quick look at the nation’s top news stories will often serve as a somber reminder. Teresa Heinz Kerry, wife of US secretary of state John Kerry, was admitted to a Massachusetts hospital in July 2013 after suffering a seizure. As many reports pointed out, Kerry has been battling breast cancer for several years, receiving her first round of treatment in late 2009.

Unfortunately, there are millions of other women who share Kerry’s plight. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over 211,000 women contracted breast cancer in 2009 alone. In that same year, breast cancer was responsible for over 40,000 deaths. In total, approximately 1 in 8 American women will be diagnosed with this disease during their lifetime.

Though researchers have made strides against this type of cancer over the last several decades, such statistics prove that breast cancer is still a formidable opponent for American women. And while doctors are still not sure as to what causes this deadly disease, following certain guidelines can improve a woman’s chances of staying cancer-free.

The Possible Causes of Breast Cancer

Aside from its severity, the lack of a clear-cut cause for breast cancer makes the condition even more challenging to treat. Despite this roadblock, there are some factors that are generally place a woman at a greater risk of developing breast cancer.

  • Women over the age of 50 are more prone to getting breast cancer than younger women. An estimated 1 in 8 cases of invasive breast cancers (breast cancer that has spread to other tissues) are diagnosed in women under 45, whereas two-thirds of patients with this condition are over the age of 65.
  • African-American women face an elevated risk of getting breast cancer when compared to their Caucasian counterparts.
  • Women who have previously been diagnosed with ovarian cancer have an increased risk of subsequently getting breast cancer.
  • Some research has indicated that a woman’s estrogen levels are closely linked with her susceptibility to breast cancer. Specifically, this theory contends that an increased exposure to the estrogen hormone promotes abnormal cell activity, significantly increasing the rate at which the body’s cells divide. Cells that frequently undergo cell division are more likely to become cancerous.
  • Roughly 5 to 10 percent of breast cancer cases can be traced back to mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. Both of these genes work to suppress cancer cells; when they are altered, the body finds it harder to fight cancer. These mutated genes are a hereditary problem, meaning that patients inherit them from their parents.
  • A woman’s chances of being afflicted with breast cancer are also effected by the health of her relatives. If breast cancer has been diagnosed in one of a woman’s first-degree relatives – that is, her mother, sister or daughter – her own risk is effectively doubled. Should two first-degree relatives fall victim to this type of cancer, the patient’s likelihood for developing breast cancer is tripled.
  • In addition to the risk factors listed above, breast cancer tends to be a bigger threat to women who begin menstruating before age 12, stop menstruating after 55 or have menstruation cycles shorter or longer than average (26 to 29 days). In addition, women who have their first child past the age of thirty have a higher incidence of this condition.

How Breast Cancer Attacks the Body

In its early stages, breast cancer stealthily invades the body, often leading to no discernable symptoms. As the cancer cells fester and grow, the first warning sign often appears in the form of a lump on the breast (these lumps can also form on the underarm area). Such worrisome lumps are often followed by swelling in the armpit. The afflicted breast might become painful and/or noticeably sensitive to touch. Additionally, tumors that aren’t visible to the eye can otherwise signal their presence; the surface of the breast can appear flat or even indented in response to cancerous tumor.

Breast cancer can also cause other cosmetic changes. The nipple of the afflicted breast may retract inward, or give off a burning or itching sensation. Furthermore, nearby cancer cells can force the nipple to secrete clear or bloody fluids. A particularly alarming sign occurs when a portion of the breast’s skin turns a reddish color and takes on a bumpy texture; these symptoms frequently indicate an advanced case of breast cancer. If not caught at an early stage, breast cancer cells can invade and infect other parts of the body, including the bones, liver, lungs and lymph nodes.

Protecting Your Body

The most well-known preventative measures against breast cancer are mammogram screenings, x-ray scans of the breasts that can reveal tumors not visible to the naked eye. Until recently, women were encouraged to get a mammogram screening every 1 to 2 years beginning at age 40. In 2009, this conventional wisdom was challenged by the US Preventive Services Task Force, an independent group of experts assembled by the US Department of Health and Human Services. Instead, this team recommended that women get mammograms every two years from age fifty onwards.

Each guideline has its own share of influential supporters; the American Cancer Society, the National Cancer Institute and the American medical association all support the old guideline. In contrast, the World Health Organization, the American Academy of Family Physicians, the American College of Physicians and the National Breast Cancer Coalition have thrown their weight behind the new recommendation. As the issue remains an area of contention among highly-esteemed organizations, the best course of action might be to seek the input of your gynecologist.

Besides mammogram screenings, there are other guidelines that can help ward off the advance of breast cancer. Most of these recommendations require relatively little effort to implement, and doctors are virtually unanimous regarding their effectiveness.

  • Limit alcohol consumption to one beverage per day, if not avoiding alcohol altogether.
  • Follow a well-balanced diet that features fruits, vegetables, whole grains. Lean protein is acceptable, though it should be eaten in limited amounts (chicken breasts and fish are both good candidates).
  • Try to consume as few refined carbohydrates and fatty foods as possible. White rice, white bread and white pasta all fall into the “refined carbohydrates” category.
  • If you smoke, try to kick your habit to the curb.
  • Being overweight or obese generally leads to a host of medical problems, not the least of which is a greater risk of breast cancer. The solution to this problem is the familiar combination of diet and exercise. The Department of Health and Human Services advises getting 150 minutes worth of aerobic exercise per week. For those with especially busy schedules, 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity has the same effect on the body.
  • Evidence suggests that women who breast feed their newborns for at least a year reduce their risk of breast cancer.
  • Some women turn to hormone therapy to treat menopause symptoms. Though this treatment can be effective against menopause, getting hormone therapy for more than three to five years has been linked to a higher incidence of breast cancer. If you find yourself battling menopause for an extended period of time, explore non-hormonal treatment methods with your doctor.
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