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he Centers for Disease Control and prevention names breast cancer the most common non-skin cancer among US women, and it is estimated that each year more than 230,000 women are newly diagnosed with the disease. Even though breast cancer usually occurs in women, men can get it too, and though it is very rare, about 1% of all breast cancers happen in males.

Though death rates from breast cancer have declined for the past decade, it remains the second leading cause of cancer death among all women and the number one cause of cancer death for Hispanic women.

Breast cancer is a cancer subtype that occurs when otherwise healthy cells begin to behave in uncontrolled and unpredictable ways, creating new masses (also known as tumors) on or near the breast tissue. Breast cancer can spread outside the mammary tissues and travel to other places of the body through blood and lymph vessels; when that occurs it is called metastatic or stage IV cancer.

What Causes Breast Cancer?

Cancer is a complicated disease, and many times it is hard to pinpoint the exact reason why it happened. While doctors are still unclear on what causes breast cancer, research has allowed them to get a better idea of the major risk factors that contribute to the development of the disease.

Having one or several risk factors doesn’t necessarily mean that you will develop breast cancer; in fact, some women who are considered high-risk never develop the disease. However, these are some of the intrinsic and extrinsic factors that have been observed in breast cancer cases.

A Family History of Breast Cancer

Doctor estimate that about ten percent of all breast cancer patients inherited a mutation from a family member (mother, sister, grandmother) who also had breast cancer. The most well-known and studied genes that seem to contribute to breast cancer are the BRCA 1 and BRCA 2 genes.

Age

Breast cancer has been observed to happen mainly in women over the age of 60, but can occur at any age.

Beginning Menstruation Early

Women who got their period before the age of 12 have a higher risk of developing breast cancer.

Being Obese or Overweight

Being obese may increase your risk of developing cancer.

Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT)

Though the connection between HRT and breast cancer has been observed in observational research studies and clinical trials, there is still a lot of controversy regarding the use of hormones and cancer.

How is Breast Cancer Diagnosed?

There are different tests and screenings that help doctors diagnose breast cancer. The most common screening method is the mammogram, which is an X-ray that looks for any masses or tumors in or around the breasts. Though doctors used to recommend all women to get an annual mammogram beginning at the age of 40, new guidelines advised women to wait until the age of 50 unless they have a high risk of developing breast cancer.

In addition to mammograms, doctors recommend women of all ages to self-examine their breasts and surrounding areas to feel for any lumps or abnormalities. If an abnormality is noted the doctor may decide to perform more in-depth tests such as an ultrasound, MRI, or a biopsy.

How is Breast Cancer Treated?

How breast cancer is treated usually depends on the type of cancer, the clinical history of the patient, and how far (if any) the cancer has spread. However, most of the time breast cancer patients will undergo more than one treatment either at the same time or at different points in time. Some common treatments include:

Surgery

If the cancer is limited to one location, doctors may opt to remove the tumor. In some cases, doctors choose to remove the entire breast tissue of one or both breasts – this is called a mastectomy – and surrounding lymph nodes to prevent the cancer from coming back.

Chemotherapy

This treatment uses special medications to attack cancerous cells and shrink tumors. Chemotherapy is usually done after surgery once the bulk of the cancer has been removed in order to kill any remaining cells.

Radiation Therapy

May be used together with chemotherapy or surgery, radiation uses specialized light beams to penetrate the skin and target cancer cells.

Hormonal Therapy

Uses hormones to block hormonal receptors in cancer cells, keeping them from growing any further.

Breast Cancer Clinical Trials

Death rates from breast cancer have reduced greatly in the last couple of decades, and that has been made possible in part thanks to the medical advances that resulted from clinical trials and research studies.

Clinical trials are conducted in universities, hospitals, and research centers all across the country and many of them are always actively recruiting new volunteers. If you are interested in participating or finding more about a breast cancer clinical trial in your area talk to your doctor or contact your local hospital/university.