Breast Cancer

Breast Cancer: It affects both Men and Women

Did you know that breast cancer is the most common cancer among Singaporean women? Statistics show that more than 25% of all cancers diagnosed in women are breast cancers. Between 2011 and 2015, about 1927 women were diagnosed with breast cancer in Singapore each year.

While the fight for breast cancer awareness increases, we have to also keep in mind that breast cancer affects both men and women as well, but it is more common for it to occur in women. So, yes, men can get breast cancer.

Breast cancer in men is rare and only makes up approximately 1% of all breast cancer cases.

What is Breast Cancer?

Breast cancer happens when there is an abnormal growth of cells or a malignant tumour that has developed from the cells in the breast. These cancer cells will grow and develop, which can have the potential to spread to surrounding tissues and other parts of the body.

Most breast cancers start in the lobules – the milk-producing glands, and the ducts (the passages that drain milk from the lobules to the nipple) or the lobules (the milk-producing glands) while a small number start in the milk sacs or lobes. 

If the cancer cells are detected in the lymph nodes under the arm, it may mean that it could have, or has spread to other lymph nodes and organs such as the bones, liver or lungs.

In some cases, the cancer may grow very slowly while for others, it may develop more rapidly. 

Types of Breast Cancer

Breast cancer can be generally classified into different types, in which some of it might be common, some are rare. These may include:

  • Non-Invasive Breast Cancer

Cancer that is confined to the ducts or lobules. Both can start from a precancerous condition and become a risk factor for invasive cancer. 

  • Invasive Breast Cancer

Cancer that has spread beyond the ducts or lobules to the surrounding breast tissue. This is called Invasive ductal carcinoma (IDC) and it is the most common type of breast cancer. In the case of IDC, the cancer starts in the milk duct and has spread through the duct wall to other breast tissue.

Generally, IDC is most treatable in the early stage when the tumour is relatively small and has not spread to the lymph nodes. 

  • Metastatic Breast Cancer

A cancer that is also known as stage IV, where it has spread to another part of the body, most commonly the liver, bones, lungs or brain.

Symptoms of Breast Cancer

In early stages of breast cancer, there is usually no pain and there may be no symptoms at all. As the cancer grows, the following symptoms would appear:

  • A persistent lump or thickening that feels different from the surrounding tissue, usually in the breast or armpit area 
  • Nipple changes: a newly retracted (pulled in) / inverted nipple
  • Changes in the colour or skin of the breast, areola or nipple (eg. dimpling, puckering or scaling)
  • Blood or discharge from the nipple
  • Visible veins on the breasts
  • Change in the appearance, size or shape of the breast
  • Changes to the skin over the breast, such as dimpling – 
    • can include peeling, scaling, crusting or flaking of the pigmented area of skin surrounding the nipple (areola) or breast skin
    • Redness or pitting of the skin 

Immediately consult a doctor if you notice any of the above changes to your breasts. This is also because there are other breast conditions that might be similar or mimic the symptoms of breast cancer which require further tests to diagnose accurately. 

Risks and Causes of getting Breast Cancer

It is medically known that breast cancer occurs when some breast cells grow abnormally, and these cells will spread more rapidly than other healthy cells do – and ending up forming a lump. 

Some of the causes that have been identified by researchers include hormonal, lifestyle and environmental factors that can contribute to the increased risk of getting breast cancer. However, it is still not clear why some people who might not have any risk factors still develop cancer, and yet some people with risk factors never develop it at all. 

About 5 to 10% of breast cancers are linked to genetics and are inherited through family generations. If you have a family history of breast cancer or other cancers, you might want to undergo a blood test to check and identify specific mutations in the cells.

Among the other common factors that can relate to your increased risk of getting breast cancer include:

  • Being female: Women are much more likely to develop breast cancer compared to men.
  • Age: Your risk of breast cancer increases as you grow older. The average age of breast cancer diagnosis is 69 years. 
  • Hormonal imbalances: Increased levels of oestrogens.
  • Family history and genetics:
    • If a female family member (mother, sister or daughter) is diagnosed with breast cancer at a young age, the risk of breast cancer is increased. 
    • Certain gene mutations that exist from parents and that increase the risk of breast cancer can be passed down to children. 
  • Personal history of breast cancer: If you are diagnosed with breast cancer in one breast, there is an increased risk of developing cancer in the other breast.
  • Radiation exposure: Radiation treatments to your chest at a young age can increase the risk of breast cancer.
  • Obesity: Having more fat tissue can increase the risks of getting breast cancer with a raise in estrogen levels. Overweight women tend to have higher levels of insulin.
  • Alcohol Consumption: Alcohol can raise estrogen levels in the body, which may explain some of the increased risk of getting breast cancer.

Diagnosing Breast Cancer

Regular screening can detect breast cancer early, which also when it is likely to be curable. As it is often said, sometimes breast cancer is found right after the symptoms appear. However, many people that are diagnosed with early cancer have no symptoms! 

Therefore, this is why it is advised and important to get some of the recommended screening tests:

  • Breast Self-Exam: With the right techniques and methods shared by reliable sources, a self-exam is a proactive way to detect breast lumps early. You can do it at home while standing in front of the mirror and look for changes in the breast, before feeling them for lumps and hardened parts.
  • Breast Biopsy: This test is done when your tissue or fluid is removed from a suspicious area, and then tested for the presence of cancer.
  • Breast MRI: Provides detailed pictures of areas within the breast.
  • Breast Ultrasound: Ultrasound images can show if a lump is a cyst.
  • Clinical Breast Exam: Performed by a healthcare professional, it is advised to include in your annual check-up beginning the age of 20.
  • Mammogram: This is a low-dose x-ray examination of the breast to look for abnormal changes or growths in the breast tissue. It is also currently the most reliable way to detect breast cancer as it can pick up very small breast cancers. It is recommended that women aged 40 – 49 should go for mammography screening once a year, and women above 50 should go for one once in 2 years.

How to prevent Breast Cancer?

Making changes to your lifestyle may help reduce the risk of getting breast cancer. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Consult your doctor for available breast cancer screenings.
  • Increase breast awareness by being familiar with your breast sisters through a self-examination to understand when there are abnormal changes and symptoms.
  • Exercise at least 30 minutes on most days of the week. Start slowly.
  • If you drink, try to decrease alcohol consumption to no more than 1 drink a day.
  • Maintain a healthy diet for a healthy weight.
  • Limit postmenopausal hormone therapy. Talk to your doctor to further understand the benefits and risks of hormone therapy. In order to reduce the risk of breast cancer, try to use the lowest dose of hormone therapy possible for the shortest amount of time.

Treatment for Breast Cancer

The main types of breast cancer treatments may include:

  • Chemotherapy: The treatment that is often prescribed by using a combination of drugs to destroy the cancer cells or slowing down their progression and division to spread to other parts of the body. 
  • Hormone Therapy: Hormone therapy drugs destroy cancer cells by limiting their hormone supply.
  1. Surgery: The most common form of treatment where the surgeon removes the tumour and other affected areas. Options may include lumpectomy, partial or radical mastectomy, and reconstruction.
  • Radiation Therapy: The use of high-energy X-rays or other particles to kill cancer cells. 
  • Targeted Therapy: Targeted drugs that can block the growth of breast cancer cells. They work differently from chemotherapy drugs.

Increase Breast Cancer Awareness and Save Lives!

In this current time and age, there are many organisations and associations that provide substantial support for breast cancer awareness, with much information and research funding that has helped create advances in the diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer. 

The good news is that breast cancer survival rates have increased, and the number of deaths associated with this disease is steadily declining. This is mainly due to factors like early detection, new approaches to treatments and a better understanding of breast cancer.

Remember to schedule an appointment with an oncologist or a radiologist for a mammogram.