Cancer is a broad term for dozens of diseases, characterized by the uncontrolled division of abnormal cells in one or more parts of the body. Some types of cancer form tumors, which may feel like lumps; others do not collect but can cause damage to various parts of the body. The most common forms of cancer include melanoma, lung cancer, colon cancer, and breast cancer.
What Is Breast Cancer?
Breast cancer is one of the most common forms of this disease, caused by abnormal cells in breast tissue. While men can develop breast cancer since some men grow breast tissue, the condition predominantly affects women. According to the American Cancer Society, a lump, cyst, or tumor in the breast is defined as malignant or cancerous when it begins to invade surrounding tissues. Without treatment, breast cancer spreads to other parts of the body and may lead to death.
There are two basic types of breast cancer:
- Ductal: cancer that begins in the ducts that transport milk to the nipple
- Lobular: cancer that starts in the glands that produce breast milk
There are other types of breast cancer that are much less common, involving the muscles, skin, or soft tissue around the ducts and glands. There are also three types of breast cancer tumor:
- Benign: These tumors can cause pain or breast distortion, but they are not considered cancerous as they do not spread. A biopsy of the lump will determine whether the tissue is malignant or benign.
- Insitu: These are cancerous tumors confined in the duct or gland. This form of breast cancer is nearly always cured with treatment, often including a form of surgery that removes the tumor, so it does not change and spread later.
- Invasive: This is the most serious form of breast cancer, as the disease spreads to other areas of the body.
While breast cancer typically manifests as a lump in the breast, a change to the skin in certain areas of the breast or a painful area, not all types cause these symptoms. Other symptoms that may indicate breast cancer include:
- Thickening in one area of the breast
- Change in size or shape of breast
- Dimpling in the skin on the breast
- Inverted nipple that was not there before
- Bleeding from the nipple
- Peeling, scaling, crusting, or flaking of the areola, or the pigmented skin around the nipple
- Redness or pitting of the skin on the breast, making it look similar to an orange’s skin
- Unexplainable pain in part of the breast
It is important to ask a physician about any of these symptoms or about other concerns related to breast cancer. A doctor can perform a breast exam and a biopsy if necessary. Untreated breast cancer is more likely to metastasize to other parts of the body, especially the nearby lymph nodes.
How Many Women Are Impacted by Breast Cancer?
Per the American Cancer Society reports, approximately one in eight American women will develop breast cancer in her life. This means that any woman living in the US has about a 12 percent chance of developing some form of breast cancer. This chance may increase based on certain risk factors.
Estimates for breast cancer statistics in the US for 2018 include the following:
- There will be roughly 266,000 new cases of invasive breast cancer in women.
- There will be about 64,000 new cases of carcinoma in situ.
- About 41,000 women will die due to breast cancer.
The likelihood that a woman in the US will die from breast cancer is about 2.6 percent, or about one in 38.
However, the rates of breast cancer in the US have been steadily declining, especially in older women. In part, this involves a better medical understanding of where and how the cancer begins, so the disease can be diagnosed and treated faster; other factors involve understanding how lifestyle and environment impact cancer risk.
While there are factors that a woman cannot control, like genetics or family history, there are several lifestyle factors she can control to reduce her risk of cancer. This is especially important in women who have risk factors that are out of their control. One of the biggest, most easily controlled risk factors is diet. Unhealthy foods and alcohol put a woman at higher risk for breast cancer along with other diseases like diabetes or heart disease.
Dietary Choices and Cancer Risk
Eating healthy foods and maintaining a healthy weight are two important parts of reducing the risk of developing breast cancer. Most physicians recommend focusing on a plant-based diet, with vegetables, fruits, and whole grains as the center of each meal. Legumes, nuts, and beans are important sources of protein, fiber, minerals, and healthy fats. Eating less red meat, high-fat meat, salt, and processed food will reduce the risk of many diseases, including any kind of cancer.
Eating primarily plant-based food helps to maintain healthy weight. Being overweight or obese, especially after menopause, increases one’s breast cancer risk. Prior to menopause, the ovaries produce estrogen, which may be stored in the fat cells until it is needed; after menopause, fat cells begin to release estrogen since the ovaries no longer produce the hormone, but the body still uses it. More fat tissue means higher levels of estrogen in the body after menopause, which contributes to cancer risk. The process is similar to taking artificial hormones after menopause, which also increases the risk of breast cancer.
Outside of focusing meals on vegetables, whole grains, and lean meats, it is unclear if specific diet plans have more benefit than others. Correlations between breast cancer and consuming a lot of refined sugars, red meats, and fats indicate that these can be detrimental to long-term health. Two large studies produced contradictory information on diet after breast cancer. One found that women who switched to a low-fat diet reduced their risk of breast cancer coming back, but the associated weight loss may have skewed results; the other study found no correlation between low-fat diet and cancer reduction.
There is some concern about eating a lot of soy products, because isoflavones have estrogen-like properties. Medical studies have not found a correlation between eating a lot of soy, especially if one is a vegetarian or vegan, and an increased risk of developing or returning breast cancer. Dietary supplements are also not associated with any increased benefit or risk, although they can exacerbate existing medical conditions or interfere with medications. Any dietary concerns should be discussed with a medical professional, but sticking to a healthy diet, exercise plan, and weight will reduce the overall risk of breast cancer.
Breast Cancer’s Link to Alcohol Abuse
Drinking moderately increases a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer. Over 100 epidemiological studies have confirmed the link between alcohol consumption and breast cancer. A meta-analysis of the information in 53 of these studies found that women who drank three or more alcoholic beverages per day were 1.5 times more likely to develop breast cancer compared to women who did not drink. As women drank more, their risk increased. For every additional 10 grams (one serving) consumed per day, there was a 7 percent higher risk of breast cancer. Women who have one drink per day, for a total of about seven drinks per week, have very little increased risk (although there is still a risk associated with moderate drinking); however, those who have two or three drinks per day have a 20 percent higher risk compared to women who do not drink alcohol at all.
The most significant dietary change that can be made is limiting alcohol intake. Women who struggle with alcohol abuse, dependence, and addiction should seek recovery help to change their behaviors around alcohol or drugs. This not only improves overall mental health, but it also reduces the risk of chronic diseases, including breast cancer.
Other Potential Environmental Factors and Cancer
While diet, especially alcohol consumption, will increase one’s risk of breast cancer, there are other environmental factors that may be controllable. These include:
- Exposure to ionizing radiation
- Using various hormone therapies, including birth control and post-menopausal hormone replacement
Exposure to toxic substances in the environment, including radiation, may or may not be within one’s control; however, intentional exposure to some substances that mimic estrogen or that cause cellular mutation in a variety of cells may be controlled. Speak with a doctor for help quitting smoking or to learn more about risks associated with artificial hormonal therapy.
Lifestyle Impacts Long-Term Health
Treatments for breast cancer can vary, depending on how serious the diagnosis is. The goals of treatment are to rid the body of as much cancer as possible and prevent the disease from returning. Surgeries on the breast may remove a small part including the tumor, or they could involve removing the entire organ. Medications like hormone therapy to reduce the amount of estrogen in the body can prevent a tumor from growing. Radiation therapy or chemotherapy can reduce the risk of cancer returning. A medical professional will develop a treatment plan after a proper diagnosis.
Understanding the risks of breast cancer and taking preventative steps as much as possible is important. Making healthier decisions about food, alcohol consumption, and other lifestyle choices are great ways to reduce the risk of developing this cancer. If a woman struggles with addiction, getting into professional treatment will reduce her cancer risk and enhance her overall quality of life.