Breast cancer

A cancerous tumour of the breast. The incidence is raised in women whose menstrual periods began at an early age and whose menopause was late; in those who had no children or had their first child later in life; in those with mothers or sisters who had breast cancer; and in those who are obese. The disease is also more common in countries in which the typical diet contains a lot of fat. One form of breast cancer has a genetic component; 2 genes called BRAC1 and BRAC2 have been identified and appear to be involved in this type of breast cancer. The first sign of breast cancer may be a painless lump. Other symptoms may include a dark discharge from the nipple, retraction (indentation) of the nipple, and an area of dimpled, creased skin over the lump. In 90 per cent of the cases, only 1 breast is affected. The cancer may be suspected after discovering a lump during breast self-examination or mammography. If a lump is detected, cells will be collected from it by needle aspiration or surgical biopsy. If the lump is cancerous, the treatment given depends on the woman’s age, the size of the tumour, whether or not there are signs of spread to the lymph nodes, and the sensitivity of the tumour cells to hormones, as assessed in the laboratory. A small tumour, with no evidence of having spread outside the breast, is removed surgically. Lymph nodes in the armpit are also commonly removed at the same time. Surgery may be combined with radiotherapy and/or anticancer drugs. Secondary tumours in other parts of the body are treated with anticancer drugs and hormones. Regular check-ups are required to detect recurrence or the development of a new cancer in the other breast. If the cancer recurs, it can be controlled, in some cases, for years by drugs and/or radiotherapy.


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