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Understanding Breast Cancer
If you ask a random person on the street if he or she knows someone who has been affected by breast cancer, it’s likely that the answer will be ‘yes.’ As of 2017, there are over 3 million breast cancer survivors in the United States, and awareness of breast cancer has improved leaps and bounds over the past few decades, with numerous organizations and foundations working tirelessly to provide education and community support. These efforts have not been in vain. In fact, the American Cancer Society approximates that breast cancer-related deaths have decreased steadily since 1989, due to finding cancer earlier through breast screening and effective adjuvant therapy.
Although survival rates have increased over the past few decades, one hard fact still remains: breast cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in women. The hope is that this will change as screening becomes better and therapy technology advances, but regardless, proactive measures should be taken by all adult women. Additionally, any incidence of breast cancer – regardless of how early it’s detected – should be treated with the utmost attention, especially by adult women 65 years of age and older.
Knowing the statistics about breast cancer is important as it highlights the overall magnitude and impact of the disease, but it’s also crucial to understand how it forms/spreads and the risk factors involved.
What Is Breast Cancer?
Put simply, breast cancer represents the unsuppressed growth of breast cells, occurring when there are mutations or abnormalities in the genes that facilitate cell growth. As these cells multiply, rapidly and without regulation, a tumor often results. Tumors can either be threatening (malignant) or non-threatening (benign), with cancer being affiliated with the former. Below are some of the more common risk factors of breast cancer:
- Old age
- Family history of breast cancer (especially if a mother or sister is/was diagnosed)
- Radiation therapy in the breast or chest region
- Dense breast tissue
- Frequent consumption of alcohol
- Administration of estrogen and/or progesterone
A majority of malignant tumors form in the ducts that drain milk to the nipples, forming a type of breast cancer known as ductal carcinoma. Another common type, lobular carcinoma, forms in the milk-producing lobes or lobules. Other types include adenoid cystic carcinoma, low-grade adenosquamous carcinoma, and medullary carcinoma. Regardless of the type, breast cancer tends to go from ‘bad’ to ‘worse’ once the lymph nodes are involved.
Located just underneath the armpits, the lymph nodes are clumps of cells that provide filtering for the lymphatic system, which runs throughout the body. Once cancer has spread to the lymph nodes, the prognosis tends to be poorer than if the cancer had remained solely in the breasts, due to the increased chance of the cancer spreading to other areas of the body.
Detecting and Treating Breast Cancer
Self-examination is an important component of detecting breast cancer. Women should regularly check the breasts for any unusual masses or lumps and have them checked by a health care provider as quickly as possible. Other indications of breast cancer can include pain in the breasts or nipples, swelling, skin irritation, redness (or scaliness), and discharge from the nipples.
Although self-examination is vital in determining notable changes in the breasts, the mammogram is one of the primary tools used for screening breast cancer. Using low-level x-rays, the mammogram is designed to provide an in-depth look at breast tissue. Screening mammograms are used for those who have no symptoms of breast cancer, while diagnostic mammograms tend to be more thorough and examine the breasts from additional angles.
While still effective, there is some controversy as to whether older women should have mammograms and other screening tests conducted. The focus of the argument tends to come down to the life expectancy of older adults and the cost/probability of screening and treatment, should cancer be detected. Ultimately, however, the decision to be screened should lie solely in the hands of each individual woman.
That doesn’t mean a physician should not be consulted – quite the opposite, in fact. Consulting a physician (or team of physicians) will help your loved one understand what age-related factors determine the success of treatment. The treatment options for breast include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and hormone therapy. BreastCancer.org has put together a comprehensive, detailed guide on what to expect from each form of treatment, what’s most appropriate given one’s stage, and the potential side effects.
Comfort Keepers® Can Help
Our caregivers can help provide services that help your aging loved one live peacefully at home. If he or she needs to get to any scheduled medical appointments, our caregivers can make sure they get there safely and on time. Additionally, we can provide everything from light housekeeping to meal preparation. For a full list of our services, contact your local Comfort Keepers® location today.
BreastCancer.org. “Women Older Than 75 Benefits from Mammograms.” Web. 2017.
BreastCancer.org. “Lymph Node Involvement.” Web. 2017.
AgingCare.com. “Breast Cancer: Signs, Symptoms, and Treatments.” Web. 2017.