ScientIST: Breast Cancer Facts

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Like, totally cellular | Photo by Melissa Moore/LAist

We continue our ScientIST series for October focused on Breast Cancer Awareness.

Last week, we kicked off Breast Cancer Awareness month by highlighting the pioneering work of UCLA’s own Dr. Dennis Slamon in the field of breast cancer therapy and his fight to bring Herceptin to market. In doing so, we likened cancer to a weed overgrowing a garden, diverting vital nutrients and resources away from the healthy plants and thus deleteriously disrupting the natural balance of the system. This week we cull the top cancer organizations (City of Hope and the National Cancer Institute) to bring you some key facts on breast cancer, including information on the disease, screening and testing, and understanding your risk. With the NCI estimating that the number of new cases of breast cancer in the US this year exceeds 180,000, it’s clear that public awareness can play an integral role in early detection.

Breast Cancer Background

Breasts, located above the muscle layer that sits atop the ribs, are made up of lobes (and smaller lobules) that contain milk-producing glands, ducts which connect the lobules to the nipple, the nipple and the areola that surrounds it, fatty tissue, blood vessels, and lymph vessels. Lymph vessels are similar in structure to blood vessels, except they carry lymph fluid and are connected to lymph nodes located throughout the body. The lymphatic system is an integral part of the immune system, and functions to filter and trap bad stuff, like bacteria, viruses, and even cancer cells.

When breast cells behave abnormally, they can form a mass of cells (tumor) that can be benign (OK) or malignant (not OK). Malignant tumors are cancer, and can break away from the main tumor to spread (metastasize) to other parts of the body through the bloodstream or lymphatic system, wreaking havoc on other organs where they land. Because of this, looking at lymph nodes near the breasts during cancer diagnosis is a way in which to determine whether or not the cancer has spread.

Signs and Symptoms

Both the NCI and City of Hope recommend consulting your health care provider if you experience any of the following symptoms:

• A change in how the breast or nipple normally looks (size, shape, skin appearance, nipple turned inward)

• A change in how the breast or nipple normally feels (lumps, tenderness)

• Fluid from the nipple

• Though early breast cancer does not normally cause pain, if a women experiences breast pain that does not go away, she should see her provider

Screening and Testing

The best mode of action for early detection is to get screened prior to any physical symptoms arising.

• Mammograms (x-rays of the breast): The NCI and City of Hope recommend that women in their 40s have a routine mammogram every 1-2 years. Women younger than 40 but with risk factors should consult their primary healthcare provider to determine an appropriate screening regimen. Additional diagnostics such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), ultrasound imaging, biopsy, and positron emission tomography (PET) can also be utilized, either for screening before physical symptoms arise or to monitor the course of the disease.

• Clinical breast exam: Usually performed during a woman's annual gynecological exam, this non-invasive procedure involves a physician looking for changes in the breast and lumps in the breast, underarm, and collarbone area.

• Breast self-exam: Recommended monthly, to be performed by you at home to check for changes or lumps in your breasts.

Understanding Your Risk

Although no single variable can be measured to indicate that a woman will develop breast cancer, certain risk factors are correlated with an increased chance of developing the disease.

• Age

• Personal history of breast cancer

• Family history of breast cancer

• Genetics

• Race

• Other: reproductive and menstrual history, radiation therapy to the chest, breast density, breast changes, certain drugs, weight, physical activity, alcohol use

Remember the old Francis Bacon adage "Knowledge is Power"? For breast cancer, it's especially true. Do yourself a favor and listen to the overwhelming amount of research and evidence that suggests preventative care is key: Get over the lethargy of finding time to take care of YOU by assessing your risk factors and beginning your monthly self-exams this October.