Understanding Breast Cancer

Each year, Mother's Day in the United States helps shed light on the problem of breast cancer. Heightened efforts at raising awareness of breast cancer around Mother's Day include the cooperation of many corporations, including Major League Baseball, whose players use pink bats in a show of support for breast cancer victims and survivors.

But breast cancer is an issue that extends beyond the month of May, and many people might be surprised to learn of breast cancer's prevalence. In the United States alone, breast cancer incidence in women is 1 in 8, or roughly 13 percent. In fact, among women in the U.S., breast cancer rates are higher than those of any cancer besides lung cancer.

With such staggering figures, it's important for both women and men (who can also suffer from breast cancer) to gain a greater understanding of this deadly disease.

What Is Breast Cancer?

Breast cancer is an uncontrolled growth of breast cells. Any type of cancer is the result of mutations in genes responsible for regulating the growth of cells and keeping them healthy. In a healthy body, the cells replace themselves in an orderly fashion, as healthy new cells take over as old ones die out. When mutations occur, changed cells gain the ability to keep dividing without control or order, producing more similar cells and forming a tumor.

In the case of breast cancer, cancerous cells gradually invade nearby healthy breast tissue and make their way into the underarm lymph nodes, which are small organs that filter out foreign substances in the body. If the cancer reaches the lymph nodes, it then has a pathway into other parts of the body. Upon diagnosis, a patient will be told what stage of breast cancer they are in, which tells how far the cancer has spread beyond the original tumor.

Is Breast Cancer Hereditary?

According to BreastCancer.org, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing reliable, complete and current information about breast cancer, only 5 to 10 percent of cancers are due to an abnormality inherited from a parent. While all breast cancers are caused by a genetic abnormality, roughly 90 percent of breast cancer cases are the result of genetic abnormalities that are a result of the aging process and the wear and tear of everyday life.

Can Breast Cancer Be Prevented?

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is always an ideal approach, but breast cancer is never the fault of the individual. A balanced diet, a lifestyle that includes abstaining from smoking and drinking alcohol in excess and regular exercise are all ways to stay healthy, but none will guarantee a woman or man will not get breast cancer.

Are There Risk Factors for Breast Cancer?

BreastCancer.org notes that there are factors a woman or man can control that might lessen their risk for breast cancer. Those risks include:

* Weight. Post-menopausal women in particular can reduce their risk of breast cancer by maintaining a healthy weight. Fat tissue is the body's main source of estrogen after menopause, and having more fat tissue means higher estrogen levels, which increases breast cancer risk.

* Diet. Many cancers are linked to diet, but studies have yet to show for certain which types of foods increase the risk for breast cancer. In general, it's good to restrict sources of red meat and other animal fats, such as fats from dairy products. Some studies have shown that eating a lot of red and/or processed meats is associated with a higher risk of breast cancer. Eating a diet low in fat and rich in fruits and vegetables is often recommended to reduce cancer risk.

* Exercise. The American Cancer Society recommends engaging in 45 to 60 minutes of physical exercise 5 or more days per week, as evidence continues to mount that exercise can reduce breast cancer risk.

* Alcohol and smoking. Alcohol limits the liver's ability to control blood levels of estrogen, which can increase risk of breast cancer. Similarly, smoking has been associated with a small increase in breast cancer risk.

BreastCancer.org also notes additional risk factors for breast cancer can include recent oral contraceptive use, stress and anxiety and exposure to estrogen.

While all of the mentioned risk factors are within an individual's control, there are a host of additional factors beyond a person's control that can increase risk of breast cancer. These factors include age, family history, personal history, and race among others.

For more information on breast cancer, visit www.breastcancer.org.

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