Most people think that breast cancer is all about family history and the genes that you have inherited from your mother or your father. But as it turns out, only about ten percent or fewer cases of breast cancer are related to a single rare gene that carries a high risk of breast cancer, like BRCA1 or BRCA2. In addition about twenty percent of women who develop breast cancer have a family history that’s not explained by one of those genes. This means that most women who develop breast cancer don’t have a family history and did not inherit a gene that gave them an increased risk. In fact, all women are at risk, even the thin, vegetarian yoga instructor who seems to be doing everything right. And if you did inherit a gene like BRCA1 or 2, it simply means that you have inherited an increased risk, not a 100% certainty of the disease. In order for breast cancer to occur other things must also take place.
Doctors believe that the reason breast cancer is so much more common today than in the past is because our internal and external environments have changed. For example, obesity is now epidemic and excess fat in one’s body causes a change in your internal environment that may make you more prone to developing breast cancer. The fact that women are beginning their menstrual periods earlier also increases the risk of breast cancer. Add to this all of the various chemicals that are present in today’s environment – pesticides, plastics, detergents, nylons along with derivatives of petroleum products – and we find additional cancer stimulants to a breast cell.
Signs and Symptoms
A lump or a mass in the breast is a significant finding which may be sign of breast cancer and should be reported to your doctor immediately. Other signs and symptoms include a change in symmetry or size of the breast, inversion of the nipple, and changes in the skin of the breast such as thickening, dimpling, scaly skin around the nipple, an orange-peel like appearance of the skin, and ulcers. You should also report changes in the skin temperature or color, such as a warm, hot, or pink area, to your physician as well. Unusual drainage or discharge from the breast may also be a sign of breast cancer, as can be a change in the nipple, such as itching, burning, erosion or protrusion. Finally, pain is a significant finding and may be indicative of an advanced tumor.
More and more in our society femininity, sexuality, and self-image are connected with the breast. Many women feel that a mastectomy, or removal of the breast, will depreciate their femininity and impact their sexuality. As a result, when faced with the various treatment options depression can present a significant added problem. For this reason early diagnosis is extremely important, as this allows for a greater chance of cure and may minimize the extent of treatment needed. If needed, plastic surgical restoration can be performed and it has become increasingly successful and aesthetically acceptable.
Fortunately, the survival rate for breast cancer has improved, but as with any cancer, early diagnosis is the key to a good outcome.
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George Sanders, M.D.