Breast Cancer: It's More Than A Pink Ribbon

Perhaps one of the most widely known cancers and for an unfortunate reason, it is the second most diagnosed cancer in women. Almost every single one of us knows someone who had or currently has this horrible disease. Most of us have grown up hearing stories of this cancer and seeing fundraisers, races, and awareness campaigns to bring light and funding to breast cancer. In honour of October being Breast Cancer Awareness Month, let’s take off the rose-coloured spectacles and look at breast cancer for what it truly is.

The Different Types of Breast Cancer

Like all cancers, there is no one type of breast cancer. Depending on the type and stage, one patient may receive different treatment than another patient.

Angiosarcoma

Angiosarcoma is rather rare and quite difficult to detect, yet it is sadly one of the worst. The cancer cells are formed within the lining of a person’s blood and lymph vessels. A diagnosis can involve a physical exam, MIR, CT, PET, or a biopsy to determine whether a patient has Angiosarcoma or not. Unfortunately, it is a very aggressive and fast-moving cancer, so the treatment depends on the size, location, and spreading of the tumor. If it is not very large or has not spread, surgery is the most likely treatment. Radiation therapy can be an alternative to surgery, although it is usually combined with surgery or chemotherapy. If cancer has spread to other parts of your body, chemotherapy is usually the best choice.

Ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS)

Ductal carcinoma in situ is, fortunately, a non-invasive, non-life-threatening cancer. The cancer cells form in the milk ducts of the breast; however, it does not spread past the milk ducts into any other surrounding tissue. DCIS itself is not life-threatening, but it greatly increases your risk for a reoccurrence of cancer. This usually happens within five to ten years after you are initially diagnosed with DCIS, with the statistics of it coming back is 30%. DCIS can be detected through physical examination of your breasts, biopsy, or a mammogram. Although it is non-invasive and usually not threatening to one’s life, treatment is still necessary. DCIS can be treated by lumpectomy, either alone or coupled with radiation therapy, hormonal therapy after surgery, or a mastectomy.

Inflammatory breast cancer

An aggressive, rapid, rare type of breast cancer, inflammatory breast cancer occurs when cancer cells block the lymphatic vessels in the skin covering the breasts. It usually spreads to the surrounding tissue and lymph nodes. An important fact to note is, it is commonly confused with a breast infection as it takes on many of the physical characteristics. It is rather difficult to detect inflammatory breast cancer as there is often no lump. The best way to test if you have it is a physical exam by a doctor, mammogram, MRI, or ultrasound, or a tissue sample. To treat this cancer, it usually begins with chemotherapy either done before or after a mastectomy. The mastectomy involves the removal of the whole breast and surrounding lymph nodes. Radiation therapy or hormone therapy may also be used to follow up on your surgery.

Invasive lobular carcinoma (ILC)

The second most diagnosed breast cancer after DCIS. Unlike DCIS, invasive lobular carcinoma begins in the lobules (milk-producing glands) and spreads to the surrounding areas. It makes up 10% of all invasive breast cancers. The diagnosis can be an examination, mammogram, MRI, biopsy, or an ultrasound. ILC can be problematic when trying to detect it with an ultrasound or a mammogram as the cancer cells do not form in a mass, but rather a single-file line. A partial or full mastectomy may be needed to rid the body of ILC, as well as radiation therapy afterward. Chemotherapy and hormonal therapy may also be combined to get rid of any cancer cells that may have traveled beyond the breasts.

Paget's (PAJ-its) disease of the breast

Another rare form of breast cancer, PAJ-its affects mostly women over the age of 50. PAJ-its is first formed on the nipple before spreading the areola and usually the under-breast area. It can be found through breast exams, biopsies, lymph node biopsy, and/or a mammogram. Paget’s can be treated by a mastectomy followed up with radiation therapy.

Phyllodes Tumor

Phyllodes is one of the rarest types of breast cancer and one of the hardest to detect. Although 90% of the tumors are benign, it is incredibly fast-growing and can grow to be several centimeters within a period of days. Phyllodes can not be well detected by one diagnosis and often requires a combination of biopsies, mammogram, MRI, blood work, physical examination, and PET scan. Phyllodes is so uncommon that even today, a second pathologist opinion is required. An interesting element of phyllodes is the tumors grow in the breast tissue rather than the breast ducts. Unfortunately, the cancer does not respond directly to radiation, hormonal, or chemotherapy. The only way to get rid of the tumors is by surgery. Some patients may undergo radiation just to make sure all of the cancer cells are gone after surgery. Although one of the rarest breast cancers, it is one of the most aggressive.

Risk Factors of Breast Cancer

Unfortunately like most things in life, our risk for cancer of any kind is predominately out of our control. When it comes to breast cancer, family or personal history, genetics, gender, age, and race are things we can’t control but can increase our risk. However, we can strive to maintain a healthy lifestyle to not only improve our physical and mental health but to also take preventative steps towards breast cancer. Diet, exercise, alcohol consumption, smoking, stress, and contraceptives can increase our likelihood to develop cancerous tumors. You don’t have to stop taking your birth control or become a gym rat, but you do have to more mindful and aware of the increased possibilities of cancer and take the necessary precautions.

Lumps, Bumps, and Discharge, oh my!

We get it; it’s a little awkward to have a doctor check to see if you have any lumps in your breasts. Although it’s good to have it done every now and then, the National Breast Cancer Foundation created a handy little guide to help you with self-examination to see if you should consult a medical professional.

What should you be looking for exactly? Take note of any changes to the skin: redness, flakiness, irritation, dimpling, thickening or swelling, lumps in the breast and underarm, nipple discharge (other than breastmilk), pain in any area of the breast, and any changes in the size of the breast or nipple. If you have any of these symptoms, even if it seems minor, it is best to always get it checked.

Boys Get Breast Cancer Too

Cancer doesn’t discriminate, it can affect anyone and anything. The unfortunate reality is there seems to be a stigma around men getting breast cancer. It seems odd, right? Why would there be discrimination against a person getting cancer or any illness? Although men make up less than 1% of all cases of breast cancer, you can’t discuss breast cancer awareness without mentioning all parties. Men with breast cancer get treated no differently than women, the diagnosis is the same and the treatment is the same. It may be odd to think that men can get breast cancer even though they do not have breasts. Well, that may be true, but in retrospect men have breasts, they just don’t produce the hormones necessary for breast growth. Because breast cancer in men is so rare and seems to be a threat to being “masculine” it is rarely spoken about.

The Pink Lifestyle

You shouldn’t just check for any lumps or changes in your breasts in October, it should be a monthly occurrence. Set a reminder on your phone or write it down on your calendar. Taking preventative steps for any ailment isn’t a hobby, it’s a lifestyle. The most important thing you can do is to educate yourself on your health. Look into any potential risk factors and see if you can do anything to improve them. Although we aren’t able to eliminate cancer yet, we are able to bring awareness to it and work on finding a cure.

To learn more information about getting a breast screening, see https://www.plannedparenthood.org/learn/cancer/breast-cancer/what-breast-exam

 

This article is dedicated to my lovely and strong mother Cathy (and the other badass women & men), who beat breast cancer (malignant Sarcoma Phlloydes) in her late 20s. Thank you for teaching me to always look on the bright side of life. Love you, Mom.