As many people around the world know, October is breast cancer awareness month. According to the National Cancer Institute, breast cancer is the most common type of cancer, with 268,670 new cases expected in the United States this year. While it is very common, it also is very detectable and treatable.
So, what exactly is breast cancer?
Breast cancer begins when cells in the breast start to grow out of control. Usually, these cells form a tumor that can often be seen on an x-ray or felt. If these cells can grow into surrounding tissues or spread to other distant areas of the body, the tumor is malignant, or cancerous. This process can happen to cells in any part of the body and spread to other areas.
Where does breast cancer start?
Most breast cancer starts in the milk ducts, while some start in the glands that make the breast milk. There are other types of breast cancers as well, but they are less common. Many types of breast cancer are thought to cause a lump in the breast. While that is true, not all do. There is an abundance of cancers that are found during mammograms, which detect cancers at an earlier stage, often before being able to be felt.
What if I feel a lump?
It is important to know that most lumps felt in the breast are benign, or non-cancerous. They cannot spread outside of the breast and are not life-threatening. However, some of these benign lumps can increase a woman’s risk of breast cancer. If you feel any kind of lump, or if something feels off, don’t hesitate to have it checked out by a healthcare professional. All lumps should be checked to determine if they are benign or malignant and how they will affect your future cancer risk.
How does breast cancer spread?
Breast cancer can spread when cancer cells get into the blood or lymph system and are carried to other parts of the body. The lymph system is a network of lymph vessels found throughout the body, connecting all lymph nodes. The clear fluid inside the lymph vessels contains tissue by-products and waste material, as well as immune system cells. The lymph vessels carry the fluid away from the breast, so if cancer cells enter those lymph vessels, cancer can begin to grow in lymph nodes.
What prevention and early detection steps can I take?
Two of the best prevention steps you can take are to perform breast self-examinations and receive routine mammograms. Breastcancer.org believes breast-self examinations are a useful and important screening tool, but especially when combined with regular physical exams by a doctor, mammograms and ultrasounds. As mentioned earlier, some cancers can only be found by mammography, but it is also true that some cancers can only be found by physical exams. Breast self-exam best practices and a step-by-step tutorial can be found here.
A mammogram is an x-ray of the breast. It is used for women who have shown no signs or symptoms of breast cancer. The x-ray images make it possible to detect tumors that cannot yet be felt. If you’re unsure of what to expect for your first mammogram, you can read our advice here.
Although the risk of cancer cannot be completely diminished, Mayo Clinic has some lifestyle changes that can be made to lower your risk. These tips include limiting alcohol, not smoking, controlling weight, remaining physically active, and breastfeeding for at least one year.
At Maryville Imaging, our friendly, courteous staff performs mammograms daily. We aim to keep our patients comfortable and relaxed during the entire process. To schedule a mammogram, call 618-288-4929.