Breast Cancer: Genetics, Symptoms and Treatment

Breast cancer is a relatively common type of cancer affecting women and sometime also men. It is a cancer that takes place in the breast tissue. The fact that it is more common in women is due to the presence of milk ducts and lobules  breast cancer tends to affect these parts of the breast tissue more than other parts. Breast milk ducts and lobules are present in females but absent in males, hence why the incidence rate of breast cancer is higher amongst females. In rarer cases of breast cancer, the stromal tissue (which includes connective tissue and supporting cells) is affected.

The genetics of Breast Cancer

Breast cancer can be caused by inherited gene mutations. If you have a relative who has suffered from breast cancer then there is a chance that you may have inherited the gene. Not all forms of breast cancer are however, hereditary. Many cases are in fact sporadic cancers and are not linked to any inherited genetic mutation. If the condition runs in the family, a breast cancer genetic health test might help you know whether or not you too have the gene. If the DNA test result indicates that you have the gene or at least have a high probability of having the disease, you will need to take the necessary precautions and measures including very regular breast checks and visits to your doctor.

The number of breast cancers that are caused by hereditary genes are only around 10% of the total cases of breast cancer. This does not mean that other cases of breast cancer are not genetic. As mentioned above, random, sporadic mutations can occur at any point in any person’s life and cause the growth of a tumor.

There are two main gene mutations responsible for breast cancer:

  • BRCA1 (this is a tumor suppressor gene and helps suppress cancer but a mutation on this gene might inhibit the human body from doing so)
  • BRCA2 (this is a tumor suppressor gene helps suppress cancer but a mutation on this gene might inhibit the human body from doing so)

Unfortunately, genetic family history of breast cancer is not always an accurate means to determine genetic predisposition. Family relatives may not always be aware of other relatives having the condition. Premature deaths in the family may also lead to inaccuracy in assessing family genetic health for breast cancer.

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How do I know whether I have breast cancer?

In most cases, there are absolutely no symptoms of breast cancer. There are however, physical signs which could indicate the disease. Typically, women with breast cancer will have a breast lump or more. The lump can also occur in the arm pit. Typically, pressing the lump or squeezing it causes no pain.

All women are recommended to take mammograms regularly as this could help reveal whether there is any cause for concern (ultrasounds, MRIs and biopsies may also be used). It will take a while for a breast lump to be detectable by the feel of the hand whilst mammograms are able to detect lumps far earlier.  In some cases, discharge can be seen at the nipple; the discharge sometimes contains blood. The skin may also exhibit a condition known as dimpling in which the breast is not completely round but rather shows a kind of dimple or perhaps several.

Dimpling is not invariably a sign of cancer and can be sometimes just due to posture or menstruation; it does make sense to have any breast dimpling checked. Sometimes the dimpling could simply be due to a blockage in the lymphatic system. In other cases, it could mean there is a tumour somewhere in the breast which is affecting the tissue and therefore, by consequence, affecting the shape. Other symptoms include nipples retractions or inverted nipples or marbling under the skin.

Breast cancer treatment

Treatment is based upon a number of things; doctors need to determine how advanced the cancer is and decide whether it will grow quickly or slowly. They also need to estimate whether the cancer will recur at a later stages and which treatments may be more effective. Hormone therapy, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, partial mastectomy, lumpectomy, full mastectomy and Sentinel lymph node biopsy are the ones used. Again, depending on the situation, a different cancer will be used.

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