Breast cancer – causes, tests and treatment

According to a 2008 report breast cancer is the most common cause of cancer in females and caused more than four hundred thousand deaths of women around the world in 2008 (link).

Although in developed nations there are standard protocols followed to detect breast cancer early but the scenario in developing nations is quite different and many cases are diagnosed at much late state and makes saving life difficult. Breast cancer can occur in both male and female since both have breasts, but much more common in females.

What are the causes of breast cancer?

Till date probably no single answer is available, following are proposed genetics, family history, cigarette smoking, alcohol, certain meat products etc.

In terms of genes responsible for breast cancer two are commonly heard in news and internet and presently a topic of discussion in courts of certain nations in patent issue i.e. BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene. Presence of BRCA genes are not definitive for breast cancer diagnosis but may help suspect significantly in women with family history of breast cancer.

Next is how does breast cancer present? Well not always a symptom or a mass in breast can be felt, but some can feel certain lumps in breast. Certain breast cancers can cause breast skin dimpling. In past self breast examination was much talked about but in recent days it’s not a reliable method since not always a mass is palpable by hands and even a doctor can miss it. Hence in developed nations an X-ray of breast called mammogram is recommended for all women after the fourth decade of life. Although a cancer can be present before fourth decade of life but mammograms are unable to pick up such cancers at young ages since breast tissue is too dense at that age.

English: Mammography in process: Shown is a dr...
Mammogram process

If mammogram shows any breast cancer hint then a pathologic examination (cytology or biopsy) might follow as a next step. There is a term called triple assessment – which includes clinical assessment, imaging assessment (mammogram or ultrasound) and pathologic assessment (cytology or biopsy). These tests are done as part of screening exam for breast cancer.

If a breast cancer is diagnosed the doctor will decide the stage of the cancer and might recommend surgery or radiation or chemotherapy depending upon the stage and spread. Axillary lymph nodes in axilla are common sites where breast cancer metastasis (i.e. spread). Although it can spread to various body parts like vertebra, brain etc.

Certain breast cancers are called estrogen receptor positive (since estrogen receptors are found in this cancers), they are treated with a drug called tamoxifen. Another drug you may have heard of which is called trastuzumab, is used for breast cancers that express a protein called HER2 protein.

English: A series of six illustrations showing...
English: A series of six illustrations showing how to do breast self examination (BSE)

Please cross check information from other sources too. For all your health concerns please be guided by your healthcare provider. References- 1,2