What is breast cancer?
Did you know that breast cancer is the most common cancer among women? Each year more than 1.5 million women worldwide are impacted by this awful disease, which also causes the greatest number of cancer-related deaths among women: In 2015 alone, more than 570.000 women died from breast cancer around the world.
The female breast is made up of a lot of small glands that are surrounded by fat and connective tissue. The mammary glands produce and secrete milk to feed infants. Breast cancer starts when the cells in the breast start to grow out of control. Typically, the cancer first develops in a milk duct, but it can take years before the cells lead to a noticeable lump developing in the breast. Breast cancer can then spread from the initial lump in the breast to the lymphs and blood vessels, and from there it can spread to other even more distant parts of the body.
What are the symptoms?
Very often, the only symptom may be a small lump in the breast, and in this case, most commonly it is the woman herself who first detects that something is wrong. Therefore, it is important that women are conscious about their body and how their breasts normally feel and look. But it is important to remember that all breasts are different, and what is normal to one woman is not necessarily normal to other women. Breasts can also look and feel different depending on the woman’s menstrual cycle and age. So learn how YOUR breasts feel, and be aware of any changes.
In particular, look out for these symptoms:
- A lump in your breast
- A small retraction of the skin or wrinkles on the breast, or if the skin of the breast has become uneven, like orange peel – these can be signs of a deep-rooted tumour
- Clear or bloody fluid leaking from the nipple, or if the nipple starts to turn inwards
- Swollen lymphs in the armpit, which may be the first sign of a tumour in the breast.
If you have any of these symptoms, or if you have the least suspicion that something is wrong, do not hesitate to contact your doctor and get a check-up. It might not be anything at all – but better safe than sorry.
Is it possible to prevent breast cancer?
The quick answer is no! Unfortunately, there is no sure way to prevent breast cancer, but there are some things that you can do that might lower your risk, such as changing the risk factors that are under your control as outlined in the following.
1) Avoid alcohol: Drinking alcohol has been proven to be clearly linked to an increased risk of breast cancer, and the risk increases with the amount of alcohol consumed. Women who have 2–3 drinks a day have an about 20% higher risk of developing breast cancer compared to women who don’t drink alcohol.
2) Stay active: Exercise boosts the immune system and helps you keep your weight in check. Also, there is growing evidence that regular physical activity can reduce the risk of breast cancer, especially in women past the menopause. Even exercising for as little as a couple of hours a week might be helpful, but the more activity the better. Try to combine cardio training (e.g. brisk walking, running, cycling, swimming, dancing) with strength training for 3–4 hours a week, and make sure that some of the activity is at a high intensity so you raise your heart rate up. You can also try to incorporate physical activity into your normal daily activities; for example, take the stairs instead of the elevator, or go for a walk in your lunch break.
3) Stop smoking: Smoking is a confirmed risk factor for many types of cancer, including breast cancer. Second-hand smoke is also a risk factor. So if you are a smoker, or someone in your close family smokes, it would be a very good idea to stop! From the day you stop smoking, the positive effect starts, and then each week you are smoke-free, you give yourself increased advantages for a healthier life. Stopping smoking also contributes to a healthier heart and lungs.
4) Stay at a healthy weight: Especially after the menopause it is easy to gain weight, but being overweight or obese increases the risk of breast cancer. This is because after the menopause your ovaries stop making oestrogen, and your fat tissue then takes over. So having more fat tissue after menopause can raise oestrogen levels and increase your risk of getting breast cancer. Also, women who are overweight tend to have higher blood insulin levels, which have also been linked to breast cancer. If you are unsure what is the most healthy weight for you to be at, consult your doctor. You can also try to calculate your BMI (use this easy calculator: https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/educational/lose_wt/BMI/bmi-m.htm) to see if your weight is in the healthy range for your height.
5) Eat a healthy diet: A nutritious, low-fat diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables can help reduce the risk of developing breast cancer. Whole grains have also been linked to reducing the risks of cancer. Whereas, a high-fat diet can increase the risk of getting cancer, because fat triggers oestrogen production, which can fuel the development of cancer. Eating a healthy diet will also help you maintain a healthy weight.
6) Children: Having children and becoming pregnant at an early age seems to reduce the risk of getting breast cancer, especially if you have your first child before the age of 30. For a certain type of breast cancer, called triple negative breast cancer, pregnancy seems to increase the risk, however.
6) Breastfeeding: Breastfeeding can lower the risk of getting breast cancer, especially if the woman breastfeeds for longer than 1 year. However, there is less benefit for women who breastfeed for less than a year. There are several reasons why breastfeeding seems to protect the breast. Making milk 24/7 limits the breast cells’ ability to misbehave. Also, most women have fewer menstrual cycles when they are breastfeeding, resulting in lower oestrogen levels. Many women also tend to lead a more healthy lifestyle while pregnant or breastfeeding (avoiding smoking and alcohol, and eating more nutritious foods).
Did you know
That men can also get breast cancer? But that breast cancer occurs nearly 100 times more often in women than in men?
That breast cancer is rare among women under 30 years of age? Whereas, it is most common among women over 60 years of age.
That breast cancer is not contagious? If one of your close relatives has been diagnosed with breast cancer, your risk, however, is increased. Indeed, if your mother, sister or daughter has had breast cancer, your risk is doubled.
That the ideal time for women to perform breast self-examination is 7–10 days after their menstrual period starts, which is also when their breasts are the least tender and lumpy? If the woman no longer menstruates, she should select the same day of the month, every month, and mark it on the calendar to remind herself when to perform the self-examination.