Dr Meenu Beri MD (Path)Lab, Director HOD Cytopathology, Clinical Pathology and Haematology, Lifeline Laboratory.
What is Breast Cancer?
All cancers are characterized by an indiscriminate proliferation of cells at the rapid rate. Breast cancer occurs when this cell proliferation begins in the breast. Leading cancer among women in India, it is second only to cervical cancer, but reassuringly, it is also the most treatable of all types of cancers, if detected at an early stage (stage I-II). Post-menopausal women (over 55 years of age) are more vulnerable. However, its prevalence among younger women is on the rise. Preventive screening every 2 years is imperative, especially if a first- degree female relative in the immediate family (grandmother, mother, aunt or sister) is diagnosed with it.
Although it is a rare occurrence, men too, can get breast cancer – ductal carcinoma and lobular carcinoma being the most likely types. The symptoms are more or less the same in both genders.
Symptoms may be latent or blatant, as they may manifest differently in different women. They may appear long after cancer has already developed, or there may be no apparent symptoms at all. The following symptoms are, however, common in most cases:
- Any lumps and inflamed or swollen lymph nodes on or around the breast, armpit and collar bone must be subjected to a doctor’s screening without delay. Every lump may not necessarily be a cancer – but it could be a cyst, blocked milk gland, abscess or fibro-adenoma (a smooth, rubbery and benign lump of fat deposit which moves upon touching).
- ‘Orange peel’ appearance or dimpled appearance of the breast.
- Thickening, flaking, scaling, discoloration or bruising of breast skin.
- Rash or irritation.
- Watery or bloody discharge from nipples.
- Changes in the breast shape.
- Retracted, pulled in or inverted nipples.
- Pain and tenderness in or around the breast area.
- Lumps tend to develop more commonly in the left breast.
The presence of certain risk factors may indicate a higher breast cancer risk:
- Family history of cancer, and if a first-degree female relative (grandmother, mother, aunt, or sister) has got breast cancer.
- Post-menopausal women above 55 years are at high risk.
- Early-onset menarche (beginning of menstruation before 11-12 years) late-onset menopause (cessation of menstruation after 55 years).
- No past history of breastfeeding.
- Smoking and alcohol consumption.
- Overweight or obese can also increase the risk.
Signs of metastatic breast cancer (cancer which has spread to other parts of the body), of which one may not be aware, could include general weakness, headache and nausea without any plausible reason, trouble breathing, jaundiced eyes, skin pallor, swelling in the abdomen, weight loss, etc.
The most significant fact to remember is that preventive screening is of utmost importance in the presence of one or more of the above symptoms and risk factors. There are some unalterable risk factors like family history, but some risk factors can be controlled with adopting a healthy lifestyle.
- Take a balanced diet with whole grains (go for complex carbohydrates like multigrain atta and bread, porridge, oats, muesli), fresh, dark green leafy vegetables like spinach, mustard leaves, fenugreek leaves, lettuce, cabbage, broccoli, kale, and fruits like banana, apple, pear, papaya, strawberries, etc. Include nuts like almonds, figs, and walnuts in the diet.
- Plenty of physical activity will keep you fit and prevent muscles and bones from going lax. Take a 45-minute brisk walk daily and take up light weight training to stay fit and active.
- Quit smoking and avoid excessive alcohol intake.