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Breast Cancer: Learning the Basics

At the start of October, I was cheerfully informed by someone I’d rather not mention in fear of any indiscretions, that it was breast cancer awareness month. Several pink ribbons, with an assortment of pamphlets, were thrust at me, and I was told not only to wear them but to spread them around. This was all well and good up until yesterday when someone asked me a question. It was something vague about percentages, but it had me thinking. What do I really know about breast cancer?

I knew it was prevalent among women but occurred in men as well. It was a leading cause of death in women, and assumed that developing countries bore the burden of the most deaths. What else? It troubled me to the point that the minute I returned to my room, I set to work. It was time to eradicate my ignorance of breast cancer.

First thing I learned about breast cancer, was that there is more than one type of breast cancer, some of which I’ll mention here, and are determined by the kind of cells affected in the breast.

1 in 8 women will develop breast cancer

The treatment and diagnosis also depends on how the cancer spreads. In situ breast cancers are ones that don’t spread, whereas the invasive cancer spreads or infiltrates into the surrounding breast tissues.

In Situ cancers include ductal carcinoma which is a non-invasive or a pre-invasive cancer, and maybe 1 in 5 of all breast cancers. This stage of cancer can be readily cured. In this cancer, the cells that line the ducts have changed or transformed into cancer cells but have not spread to nearby tissue, and because of this, it is easily curable, because it hasn’t metastasized yet, or invaded. However, this can later on become an invasive cancer.

Another cancer inclusive of the same type is Lobular carcinoma in situ. This type is not necessarily considered a cancer, because if left untreated it doesn’t turn into an invasive cancer. Cells that are similar to cancer cells grown in the lobules, which are the milk producing glands. Usually diagnosed by a biopsy, this cancer is usually left untreated unless doctors think so otherwise, because it may lead to higher risks of developing other kinds of breast problems.

Moving on to the invasive cancer, two most common types of cancer would have to be the Invasive Ductal Carcinoma (IDC), and the Invasive Lobular Carcinoma (ILC).

Breast cancer illustration

IDC is the most common type of invasive cancer, being 8 out of 10 in totals. It can spread different parts of the body through the lymph nodes, and the blood stream; beginning in the cells lining the milk duct, breaking through the wall of the duct, and spreading to nearby tissue.

ILC also starts in the milk producing ducts of the breast or the lobules, and it too can spread into other parts of the body. About 1 in 5 women with ILC may suffer from cancer in both breasts, if compared to other types of carcinomas. As compared to IDC, it is much harder to detect through physical exams and imaging alike.

Other less common forms include;

  • Adenoid cystic (or adenocystic) carcinoma
  • Low-grade adenosquamous carcinoma (this is a type of metaplastic carcinoma)
  • Medullary carcinoma
  • Mucinous (or colloid) carcinoma
  • Papillary carcinoma
  • Tubular carcinoma
  • Metaplastic carcinoma (most types, including spindle cell and squamous, except low grade adenosquamous carcinoma)
  • Micropapillary carcinoma
  • Mixed carcinoma (has features of both invasive ductal and lobular)

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