A pink ribbon is one of the most recognizable symbols in health care. This is because breast cancer, the disease for which the color represents, is the second most common cancer in women, affecting one in eight women. Breast cancer develops when an abnormal growth occurs within the breast tissue, typically caused by uncontrolled cell growth in the breast. These rapidly growing cells form a potentially cancerous lump or mass and can spread to other areas, including lymph nodes.
Breast cancer often presents as:
- A lump or mass in the breast
- A change in size or shape of the breast
- A change in nipple appearance, including a newly inverted nipple or discharge
“I encourage everyone to know and understand what their breast tissue should look and feel like so they’re aware of any potential change,” said Dr. Karinn Chambers, breast surgical oncologist, ECU Health and ECU’s Brody School of Medicine.
It is never too early to begin self-exams of the breast, according to Dr. Chambers. However, women should begin breast cancer screenings annually at age 40, according to the American Cancer Society. This consists of a mammogram, which is an x-ray of the breast.
Dr. Chambers also emphasized that everyone, including men, should be aware of their breast health.
“Anyone can get breast cancer,” said Dr. Chambers. “I have seen breast cancer in people of different ages, the young and the elderly. Men can also get breast cancer.”
While breast cancer in men is much less common than in women, the American Cancer Society predicts that about 2,710 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed in men in the United States in 2022.
“When a man is diagnosed with breast cancer, typically they present with the same symptoms as women – a new mass or lump within the breast,” said Dr. Chambers. “The causes and risk factors of breast cancer in men and women are also very similar.”
Breast cancer has both unknown and known risk factors. While experts still do not fully understand all of what causes breast cancer, genetics and lifestyle play a role in breast cancer.
“We recommend that women and men with a close family history of breast cancer undergo genetic testing to understand if they have a mutation on either the BRCA1 gene or the BRCA2 gene,” said Dr. Chambers. “BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes prevent proteins from rapidly growing out of control, which can cause certain cancers. For those who have the mutation, we do recommend prophylactic bilateral mastectomies, or removal of both breasts, as a preventative means to try to reduce their risk of breast cancer.”
While genetic risk factors are out of an individual’s control, there are behavioral changes one can make to lower their risk for breast cancer. The first is eating a healthy diet and exercising.
“Obesity is a big risk factor for breast cancer, and the rise of obesity in our population has led to an increased risk of breast cancer,” said Dr. Chambers. “Excess alcohol use can lead to increased risk of breast cancer as well.”
Experts highly encourage individuals to discuss screening with their primary care providers to understand their own risk for breast cancer based on their hormonal history, family history, health and age. The early detection of breast cancer allows for less invasive treatments, a greater variety of options and a greater potential to prevent the spread of breast cancer. When a person is unfortunately diagnosed with breast cancer, there are a variety of treatment options.
“The treatment of breast cancer consists of local tools and systemic tools,” said Dr. Chambers. “Local tools like surgery and radiation target the tumor directly. Systemic tools such as chemotherapy and hormone therapy can reach cancer throughout the body and may be used if the cancer has spread beyond the initial breast tissue.”
The bottom line?
“To prevent breast cancer, an individual should first discuss screening with their primary care providers so that they understand when and how often to get breast cancer screening,” said Dr. Chambers. “The second part of that would be to understand their own risk for breast cancer. Lastly, always remember to practice self-exams and know what is normal for your breasts. If you experience any changes, notify your primary care provider.”
Early diagnosis and a variety of treatment options have largely increased the odds of curing and managing breast cancer. ECU Health continues to offer 3D mammography at ten convenient locations throughout our region. Patients can take advantage of ECU Health’s free online risk assessment tool, talk with a provider and schedule a screening that meets their needs.
To learn more, please visit ECUHealth.org/breast-cancer.