What is breast cancer and how does it develop?
How can you tell the difference between a normal breast tissue and a lump?
Breast cancer is the most common cancer in the UK and each year 55,200 people are diagnosed. It is more common in women than men.
The function of the breasts is to produce milk to nourish the child and this is known as lactation. The three types of tissue that make up the breast are fat, connective and glandular tissues.
The size of the breasts is dependent on the amount of fat tissue. The development of the breasts is primarily influenced by hormones. There is little difference between a male and female breast before puberty, however, when the girl enters puberty, the hormones progesterone and oestrogen causes the breasts to develop and mature.
The connective tissue and ligaments provide support and shape of the breasts. The glandular tissue produces milk and are organized into sections called lobes. The lobes comprise of smaller structures called lobules where the milk is synthesized. Milk is made from water and nutrients that has been removed from the blood. The milk is stored in lobules until the oxytocin hormone sends a signal to the lobules to contract. This is known as milk-ejection reflex. The milk travels through a network of tiny tubes known as ducts that come together to form larger ducts that exit the skin in the nipple. The dark pigmented area of the skin is called areola and is covered with montgomery glands whose function is to secrete oil to lubricate the area.
In addition, the breast consists of lymph vessels and nodes. They are part of the immune system that runs throughout the body. The lymph is a yellow fluid that flows through the nodes and vessels. It collects waste products that is drained into the veins for discard. There are also blood vessels in the breasts.
Like any part of the human body, the breasts comprise of numerous cells. Sometimes cells undergo mutations and continue to divide rapidly. This does not mean it is cancerous and is known as non-invasive tumour. Some lumps are also not cancerous such as cysts. However, when it begins to invade surrounding tissue, it is then defined as cancerous. It is life-threatening if they continue to grow and spread to other parts of the body via the blood and lymphatic system.
Breast cancer initiates in the ducts or the lobes. Some types of cancers cause lumps in the breast but not all do. If cancer cells have spread to one or more lymph nodes, there is a higher probability that the cells could spread to other parts of the body. A biopsy to remove a lymph node is required to know whether the cancer is present.
Causes of Breast cancer
There are factors that increases the risk of breast cancer such as excessive alcohol, overweight, old age, hormonal levels, family history and smoking. Recent studies have shown by changing to a healthy diet, 9 out of every 100 cancer cases can be prevented.
This test is taken to search for signs on whether a cancer is developing. The test is called mammography and comprises of taking x-rays of the breasts. Breast screening has diagnosed 15,500 breast cancers each year in the UK. It is done between 50-70 years of age
How to tell from a normal tissue and a lump?
A normal breast tissue will feel bumpy with ‘ridges’ and ‘valleys’. If you feel a lump, then check the opposite side. For instance, if the lump is on the upper outer right breast, check the upper outer left breast. Abnormal lumps would feel hard and do not move around easily under the skin. Other physical changes include breast pain, changes in shape or size, redness, inverted nipples and dimpled breast skin. A yellow, brown or red discharge from the nipples also takes place.
What should I do if I find a breast lump?
Contact your G.P immediately even if you had a recent mammogram.
There are a number of websites that provide further information: