Cancer is a broad term for a class of diseases characterized by abnormal cells that grow and affect healthy cells in the body. Sometimes, the process of cell growth goes wrong and new cells form at an abnormal, accelerated rate. Some other forms of cancer involve old or damaged cells that do not die as they should. When these occur, a build-up of cells forms a mass of tissue called a lump, growth, or tumor.
Breast cancer starts in the cells of the breast as a group of cancer cells that can then invade surrounding tissues or spread to other areas of the body. These cells can spread by breaking away from the original tumor and entering blood vessels or lymph vessels, which branch into other tissues throughout the body. When cancer cells travel to other parts of the body and begin damaging other tissues and organs, the process is called metastasis.
Breast cancer is by far the most commonly diagnosed cancer in women. In the United States 202,964 women were diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007, and 40,598 died from the disease. That same year, 121.0 out of 100,000 white women were diagnosed with breast cancer, followed by 117.0 black women, 88.2 Hispanic women, 83.4 Asian/Pacific Islander women, and 67.3 American Indian/Alaska Native women (http://www.cdc.gov/Features/dsWomenTop10Cancers/).
Be aware of the risk factors for breast cancer
High risk: Previous breast cancer – A woman with a history of cancer in one breast has a 3- to 4-fold increased risk of developing a new breast cancer, unrelated to the first one.
Moderate-high risk: Getting older – Risk significantly increases after age 50. Approximately 77 percent of women diagnosed with breast cancer each year are over age 50. Direct family history – Having a first degree relative who has breast cancer.
Genetics – Women with the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene are at higher risk. Breast lesions – A previous breast biopsy result of atypical hyperplasia (lobular or ductal) increases a woman’s breast cancer risk by four to five times.
Moderate risk: Distant family history – This refers to breast cancer in more distant relatives such as aunts, grandmothers and cousins. Previous abnormal breast biopsy – Biopsies showing fibroadenomas with complex features, hyperplasia without atypia, sclerosing adenosis and solitary papilloma. Age at childbirth – First pregnancy after age 30 or never having children. Early menstruation – Menses before age 12. Late menopause – Menopause occurring after age 55. Weight – Being overweight, high level of central adiposity, with excess caloric and fat intake, increases your risk, especially after menopause. Other cancer in the family – A family history of cancer of the ovaries, cervix, uterus or colon increases your risk. Heritage – Female descendents of Eastern and Central European Jews (Ashkenazi) are at increased risk. Alcohol – Consuming two to five drinks daily, have about 1.5 times the risk of women who drink no alcohol. Race – Caucasian women are at a slightly higher risk of developing breast cancer than are African-American, Asian, Hispanic and Native American women. Hormone Replacement Therapy – Long-term use of combined estrogen and progesterone increases the risk of breast cancer. This risk seems to return to that of the general population after discontinuing them for five years or more.