Pink is my favorite color, but it also has another meaning each October: it symbolizes Breast Cancer Awareness Month. As a drug discovery scientist, I’ve worked toward finding a cure. Until that cure is found, the best thing we can all do is educate ourselves on how to prevent breast cancer and act on it swiftly if we receive a breast cancer diagnosis.
What exactly is breast cancer?
Cancer is the result of changes or mutations within the genes in our body that regulate healthy cell development. In normal circumstances, our cells undergo a very regular process of regeneration, but if mutations give the cells the ability to divide and produce more, this can form tumors.
Two types of tumors can result: a harmless benign tumor (which grows slowly and doesn’t invade other areas of the body) or a cancerous malignant tumor (which can spread to other areas of the body if not discovered and treated in time).
Breast cancer is the result of a malignant tumor growing from cells in the breast. The most common area for this to develop is in the cells of the lobules, which are the small ducts that produce milk. Less common, but also possible is the formation in the connective tissues of the breast, a fibrous area called the stromal tissues.
Although breast cancer is the most common cancer diagnosed among American women, the good news is that there are a lot of tools available to detect breast cancer early and treat it before it becomes life-threatening or spreads elsewhere in the body.
Mammograms are the most frequently used test to search for breast cancer. They are essentially low-energy X-rays that look for microcalcifications and masses. It’s an incredibly safe procedure that uses a minimal amount of radiation. It’s recommended for women over 40 to get a mammogram screening every 1 – 2 years, and for women over 50 to get a screening annually.
Sonograms are tests that use the ultrasound technique to detect abnormalities and lumps in the breast through the visual of photography. Sonograms can capture the internal structure of breasts, are non-invasive and use no radiation during the procedure. They’re usually recommended following a mammogram that detected a mass, but cannot confirm its nature.
Self-exams are an effective way to feel for changes or lumps in the breasts and can be done in the privacy of your own home as often as needed. Keep in mind if you do detect a mass, don’t panic! A large percentage of lumps are non-cancerous cysts and nothing to be concerned about. Even I have a lump! I got it checked out, and it's a non-cancerous cyst. That said, it’s always better to be safe than sorry and get checked out by a doctor if you believe that you’ve found a lump.
A small percentage of the population carries mutated BRCA1 or BRCA1 genes, and that mutation renders the gene unable to repair damaged DNA—the precise DNA that’s needed to prevent breast cancer. The people who have this gene are more likely to get breast cancer, and at a younger age than the average patient. Those with the BRCA mutation who survive breast cancer are also more likely to develop a second cancer later in life.
For these reasons, some who know they have the gene elect to have a Preemptive Mastectomy, which is the surgical removal of one or both breasts to reduce the risk of cancer development. Science communicator and astrophysicist Sarafina Nance has been open about her decision to have a preemptive mastectomy at age 26 after learning she carried the BRCA gene mutation. Learn more about her journey on Refinery 29.
For those with breast cancer, treatments vary based on the stage and type of cancer for which they were diagnosed. The most common ways to fight it are through radiation therapy, chemotherapy, medications and surgery.
If you or someone close to you has been diagnosed with breast cancer, there are resources available to help:
Breastcancer.org has a wealth of information about understanding the different types of cancer and treatment side effects.
The American Cancer Society has a 24/7 helpline and can help with car rides to treatment facilities and lodging during treatment.
The National Breast Cancer Foundation hosts retreats for survivors and provides Hope Kits for those going through treatment.
Cancer Lifeline offers a directory of online support groups for those in any stage of the process.
The Pink Daisy Project helps young women 45 and under by providing gift cards for life necessities to help alleviate the financial burden during their treatment.
If you’re not in need of support, but would like to help those who require assistance, all of the above organizations accept donations for the services they provide.
Neoplasm graphic credit: Julie McMurry/Pixabay