Breast cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths (the first being lung cancer) in women around the world, however the highest numbers are found in women in North America. Though much less common, breast cancer also occurs in men. The World Health Organization states that over 1.2 million people will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year worldwide. For every hundred women diagnosed with the disease one male is diagnosed.

The risk of developing the disease increases in older women, yet the disease is often more aggressive when found in younger women. Also, women who have never given birth, started their periods at a young age, or who have had estrogen replacement or exposure to radiation are also at a higher risk. Some breast cancers are genetic - that is it runs in the family. It is very important to know your family history. A history of breast cancer among other family members can increase the risk, as does a personal history of benign breast conditions.

The cause of breast cancer is unknown, but there have been several discoveries that have aided greatly in unraveling the mystery. In 1975 researchers at the University of California discovered that certain genes in normal body cells somehow became abnormal. From this discovery, scientists have been able to identify approximately 70 genes that can stimulate cancerous growths and at least a dozen genes that should deter such growth but do not. Another major discovery was that of the breast cancer gene.

Although the cause is not known and there is no true prevention, there are certain precautions that may reduce the risk.

Early detection is often a lifesaver; it is critical to the rate of survival. Women, starting at twenty years of age, should perform regular monthly self-examinations of the breast and attend annual physicals. Any noticeable change in appearance or feel of the breast, nipple, or areola, any lump near the breast or underarm, ridges in the breast, nipple discharge or inversion should be brought to the attention of a doctor immediately.

Women over the age of forty should seek annual mammograms. Mammograms detect calcium deposits. Most of the deposits detected turn out to be benign; however, microcalfications, or clusters of calcium specks may indicate breast cancer. Although effective, mammograms have been known to give false positives (show abnormalities that are not cancerous) and false negatives (does not detect cancerous abnormalities), so if there is any doubt a second opinion may be in order.

One Society volunteer stated, “The only way you can be sure that you won’t get breast cancer is to die from something else!!”

While many of the risks factors are unavoidable, there are certain life-style choices that may lessen or increase a woman’s risk. Good diet and exercise are thought to lessen the risk, while drinking two or more alcoholic beverages per day and smoking cigarettes are said to increase ones risk. The types of fat a woman eats are also important. Polyunsaturated fats found in corn oil and meats increase a women’s risk of breast cancer. This being the case, simply making healthy choices may be the ultimate preventative measure.

There are various stages and types of breast cancer; therefore, treatments will vary from case to case and range from breast-sparing surgery and radiation therapy to chemotherapy and mastectomy. Often times duel treatments will be recommended depending on the intensity of the cancer. With Early detection the survival rate over a five-year period is 95%, this percentage intensifies in significance when you consider that one in every eight women will be diagnosed with the disease.

With numbers like this the importance for research to continue is vital. Donations and volunteer work can help greatly and there are many organizations that are dedicated to the cause. Some concentrate on research, while others help women who can’t afford mammograms or treatments, or offer much needed support for those facing the disease. A few are listed below.



© Melt Magazine 2003