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Breast Cancer Q & A

Salman S. Osman, MD, oncologist at the Cecil B. Highland, Jr. & Barbara B. Highland Cancer Center at United Hospital Center

What is important to know when it comes to breast cancer? 

Breast cancer is a disease which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the breast.

  • Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in women, although it is rare, it does occur in men
  • Each year it is estimated that more than 252,710 women in the US will be diagnosed with breast cancer and more than 40,500 will succumb to the disease.

There is much that we know and much that we have yet to understand. However, we do know that cancer spreads in three important ways:

  1. Damaged cells replicate, creating more damaged cells and tumor growth.
  2. Our body’s hormones and chemicals can accelerate the growth of some tumors.
  3. Lymph and blood vessels can carry the cancer to others areas of the body, and lymph node examination can help pinpoint the progression of the disease.

Can we pinpoint what causes breast cancer?

When you are told that you have breast cancer, it’s natural to wonder what may have caused the disease. No one knows exact causes of breast cancer. Most women with breast cancer will never be able to pinpoint an exact cause. What we do know is that breast cancer is always caused by damage to the cell’s DNA.

Environmental and Lifestyle Risk Factors

  • Lack of Physical Activity:  A sedentary lifestyle with little physical activity can increase your risk for breast cancer.
  • Poor Diet:  A diet high in saturated fat and lacking fruits and vegetables can increase your risk for breast cancer.
  • Being Overweight or Obese:  Being overweight or obese can increase your risk for breast cancer. Your risk is increased if you have already gone through menopause.
  • Drinking Alcohol:  Frequent consumption of alcohol can increase your risk for breast cancer. The more alcohol you consume, the greater the risk.
  • Radiation to the Chest:  Having radiation therapy to the chest before the age of 30 can increase your risk for breast cancer.
  • Combined Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT):  Taking combined hormone replacement therapy, as prescribed for menopause, can increase your risk for breast cancer and increases the risk that the cancer will be detected at a more advanced stage.

How does cancer develop?

Cancer begins in the cells which are the basic building blocks that make up tissue. Tissue is found in the breast and other parts of the body.  Sometimes, the process of cell growth goes wrong and new cells form when the body doesn’t need them and old or damaged cells do not die as they should.  When this occurs, a buildup of cells often forms a mass of tissue called a lump, growth, or tumor.

Breast cancer occurs when malignant tumors develop in the breast.  These cells can spread by breaking away from the original tumor and entering blood vessels or lymph vessels, which branch into tissues throughout the body. When cancer cells travel to other parts of the body and begin damaging other tissues and organs, the process is called metastasis.

Explain briefly what a tumor is when it is found in the breast?

A tumor is a mass of abnormal tissue. There are two types of breast cancer tumors: those that are non-cancerous, or ‘benign’, and those that are cancerous, which are ‘malignant’.

Benign Tumors

When a tumor is diagnosed as benign, doctors will usually leave it alone rather than remove it. Even though these tumors are not generally aggressive toward surrounding tissue, occasionally they may continue to grow, pressing on organs and causing pain or other problems. In these situations, the tumor is removed, allowing pain or complications to subside.

Malignant tumors

Malignant tumors are cancerous and aggressive because they invade and damage surrounding tissue. When a tumor is suspected to be malignant, the doctor will perform a biopsy to determine the severity or aggressiveness of the tumor.

Metastatic cancer

Metastatic cancer is when cancer cells of a malignant tumor spread to other parts of the body, usually through the lymph system, and form a secondary tumor.

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