More than 225,000 diagnosed with breast cancer annually

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Constance Jackson
  • Chief, medical staff for the 42nd Medical Support Group
Breast cancer is the most common cancer among American women, occurring in one out of every eight women over a lifetime. It is the second leading cause of death after heart disease in women ages 50-75. There are more than 225,000 new cases of breast cancer every year, causing approximately 40,000 deaths annually.

October is breast cancer awareness month, and the 42nd Medical Group wants to share information on this disease. There are several types of breast cancer and a review of the anatomy of the breast will aid in understanding the types of cancer.

Normal breast tissue consists of lobes, or milk-producing glands, that connect to the surface of the skin by ducts leading to the nipple. Connective tissue composed of fat and fibrous tissue provides the support of the breast.

The remainder of the breast tissue is composed of blood vessels, nerves and lymphatic vessels that empty into lymph nodes. When a woman develops breast cancer, her own cells grow abnormally, producing a mass, lump or calcium deposits known as microcalcifications.

This abnormal growth and multiplication of cells leads to the formation of cancer in the milk ducts (ductal carcinoma) or in the glands (lobular carcinoma) that can spread to other organs by the lymphatic vessels (metastatic breast cancer.) These two types of breast cancer account for 67 percent of all breast cancers.

Despite the billions of dollars that have been donated to breast cancer research, it is still the second leading cause of death to heart disease in women between the ages of 50-75. Scientists continue to search for the cause of breast cancer as they have not been able to accurately state what causes breast cancer and why one woman gets breast cancer and the next one does not.

However, they have pinpointed some risk factors that increase a woman's chance of developing breast cancer. Some of these risk factors are avoidable, like alcohol intake. Other factors are not avoidable, such as family history. Studies have shown the following to be risk factors for breast cancer:

Age: The older one becomes the higher the risk becomes.

Family history: Risks increase if your mother, daughter, sister, father had breast cancer and become higher if the cancer occurred before age 50.

Reproductive and menstrual history: The older a woman is when she has her first child, the greater her chance of breast cancer. Women with increased risk also include those who never had children, who had their first menstrual period before age 12, who went through menopause after age 55 and who take menopausal hormone therapy for many years.

Weight: Being overweight during menopause increases risk.

Race: Cancer risk is higher in Caucasian rather than black, Hispanic/Latina, Asian-Pacific, American Indian or Alaska Native.

Alcohol: The more a woman drinks, the higher her risk of breast cancer. Physical activity: Women who have an inactive lifestyle may have an increased risk of breast cancer.

Remember, having a risk factor does not mean you will get breast cancer. A woman's chances with these risk factors are higher than women who do not have these factors.

What can women do to manage their risk factors to help prevent breast cancer?
Manage your weight with a lifestyle of exercise and activity. As we get older it is harder to lose weight and the risk of breast cancer increases as we get older and our waistlines increase. Limit your alcohol intake to 1.5 ounces liquor daily or 5 ounces of wine daily. Each woman should complete their mammogram according to the ACS recommendations and with the guidance from your physician who will consider your individual risk factors.

Like risk factors, there are several symptoms for breast cancer that some women may experience, though some women may not have any symptoms at all. Some may notice a mass or lump in their breast or underarm area, or notice a discoloration or thickening of the skin of the breast. Some women have dimpling or a pucker to the breast skin or the nipple is turned inward and may produce a bloody discharge.

Finally, some women may notice scaly, red, swollen skin to the breast with ridges or pitting that resembles the skin of an orange. If you notice any of these signs or are uncertain of what you see, make an appointment with your physician for further evaluation.

The initial screening method to diagnose breast cancer is with a mammogram. According to the American Cancer Society, a woman should have a baseline mammogram between 35 and 40 years of age.

Between 40 and 50 years of age, a mammogram is recommended every other year. After 50 years of age, yearly mammograms are recommended. A physician also may order an ultrasound or MRI if further evaluation is needed.

The 42nd Medical Group is engaged and aware that October is nationally recognized as Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The diagnostic imaging center is poised and ready to complete as many as 500 mammograms during this month.

If you are due a mammogram, stop by the clinic or call the center at 953-7881 and schedule your appointment at your convenience. Walk-ins are available if needed.