Thursday, 4 June 2009

Breast Cancer Symptoms

Breast cancer is the biggest cause of cancer-related deaths amongst women. But while that sounds like bad news, those statistics don't tell the other side of the story. Many more women get breast lumps than breast cancer. The great majority of breast lumps are benign. And in cases where a breast lump is diagnosed as cancer, if it's diagnosed early the cure rate can be 90 per cent or better.

Most breast cancers develop in the glandular tissue of the breast – hence they're called 'adenocarcinomas'. They most commonly arise from the cells lining the milk ducts of the breast, and sometimes from the milk glands themselves.
Lumps are quite common in the breast in women and 95 per cent are benign. Most are due to hormonal effects on the glandular tissue causing areas of lumpy tissue.

Some are fibroadenomas (a fibroadenoma is also called a breast mouse). These are firm breast lumps made up of fibrous and glandular tissue. Fibroadenomas are more common in younger women and may become tender in the days before a menstrual period, or grow bigger during pregnancy. They don't necessarily need treatment, especially if a needle biopsy shows them to be benign (more on biopsies later) although they can be surgically removed if they're large.

Or a lump may be a cyst, a small, firm, fluid-filled sac that many women have in their breasts, especially around menstruation time. Many women have multiple cysts (sometimes called 'lumpy breasts', or fibrocystic disease). Breast cysts don't need treatment either, but they can be aspirated (drained).

A malignant (cancerous) lump is different. It tends to be hard, with an irregular edge. As it grows, it becomes attached to (and can retract) the skin or nipple. If advanced, it can give the skin a pitted appearance, like an orange peel. Sometimes the nipple can secrete a clear or bloodstained fluid, though this very uncommon.

And like other malignant tumours, it can spread beyond the site of origin. Breast cancer spreads first via the lymphatic ducts to the lymph nodes that drain the breast (these are found in the armpit closest to the breast). A malignant lump under the arm tends to be hard and fixed to surrounding tissues.

In advanced cases, cancer cells travel via the bloodstream to other organs, especially the liver, lungs, bone and brain. So there might be symptoms related to secondary cancers (also called metastases) in these organs.

In a few cases, evidence of distant spread may be the first sign that a person has breast cancer. For instance, a person might complain of back pain and be found to have metastases in the spine. The original (or 'primary') breast cancer may only be discovered after tests.

Cells in a malignant tumour multiply faster than normal cells, so it can put a strain on the body's metabolism. The person may be tired, lose weight, and lose their appetite. The more advanced the cancer, the more pronounced these symptoms are.

Of course, many other conditions can cause these symptoms. If you have these symptoms, the chance that they are due to advanced breast cancer is very low, but they should be checked by a doctor.