Breast Cancer Awareness Special: Basic facts about Breast Cancer

By Professor G Sivakumar

Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer in women. Conservative, Orthodox Indian women are confused and have contrasting views about breast cancer. This global disease has good cure and survival if diagnosed and treated at the early stage.

In India, the incidence of breast cancer is increasing, with an estimated 80,000 new cases diagnosed annually. The incidence of breast cancer increased by approximately 50% in the last two decades. Much of this increase may be associated with greater urbanization and improved life expectancy.  In addition, age at puberty and pregnancy-related factors, such as parity, age at giving birth to the first baby, and number of children, are factors possibly related to breast cancer. The age of puberty is now around 10 to 12 years compared to 14 to 16 in the last century.

Etymology and history of cancer:

Few studies of diet and breast cancer in India have been published. Cancer has afflicted humans throughout recorded history. Cancers are not new to the then medical practitioners. Some of the earliest evidence of cancer is found among fossilized bone tumors, human mummies in ancient Egypt, and ancient manuscripts.

The origin of the word cancer is credited to the Greek physician Hippocrates (460-370 B.C.), considered the “Father of Medicine.” Hippocrates used the terms carcinos and carcinoma. In Greek these words refer to a crab, because of the finger-like spreading projections of the cancer resembling the shape of a crab.

Hippocrates believed that the body contained 4 humors (body fluids) – blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. A balance of these fluids resulted in a state of health.  An excess of black bile collecting in various body sites was thought to cause cancer. This theory of cancer remained unchallenged for over 1300 years.

Also read: What women need to know about breast cancer 

Tumours and carcinogens:

Cancer occurs when cells become abnormal and begin dividing and forming more cells without any control or order. A cancerous cell develops when it ceases to respond to growth-inhibiting signals and gains the ability to multiply uncontrollably. If the cells divide when new ones are not needed, they form a mass of excess tissue called a tumour. This tumour, in turn, can damage healthy tissue in its area.

Cancers have many different causes and sources. One of these sources is a group of chemicals called carcinogens. These carcinogens have been found in industrial pollutants, pesticides, and food additives. People who are exposed to these carcinogens through their occupation or other activities have been known to be more susceptible to cancer. The development of cancer also has been closely linked to heredity. Genetic factors are very significant in the development of breast cancer.

Statistics reveal that breast cancer is rapidly increasing in its incidence in India and it has overtaken cancer of the cervix. The ICMR’s recent data shows that breast cancer is the commonest cancer to affect Indian females in metropolitan cities. Breast cancer is a disease of the old age, the peak incidence is in the fifth and sixth decades. But in India the disease is seen a decade earlier, probably because of shorter longevity in Indian females.

Although breast cancer is known to affect women, it also can be equally devastating to men. Male breast cancer accounts for 1% of all diagnosed breast cancer. An interesting study shows that second generation of Indian migrant women become as vulnerable to breast cancer as their counterparts in the USA. Probably, environmental factors take time to bring about the required changes in the chromosomal level.

Case-control studies that compared non-vegetarian and vegetarian diets and alcohol and tobacco use in India have reported that vegetarians have a reduced risk of oral, oesophageal, and breast cancers. Vegetarian diets rely on pulses as a source of protein, and pulses have been significantly associated with reductions in cancer.

Surgical concepts have changed and big mutilating cancer surgeries are a thing of the past. A cancer diagnosis is by no means a death sentence; it is the necessary first step toward beginning treatment and regaining your health. Medical research has made remarkable advances in cancer care, and today, well over half of all people diagnosed with cancer are cured.

Also read: Role of monoclonal antibodies in cancer treatment 

While some forms of the disease are difficult to treat, modern therapies can significantly improve quality of life and may extend survival. The earlier your cancer is diagnosed and treatment begun, the better your chances of making a full recovery.An individual’s chance for recovery depends upon a number of factors such as, the stage of the cancer, the type of breast cancer, certain characteristics of the cancer cells, patient’s age and weight, menopausal status and overall state of health.

Elderly women after menopause survive breast cancer better than young women who have high hormonal activity. Mastectomy is restricted only to patients to whom breast conservation is not possible. Prior to the discovery of the drug Tamoxifen which is a hormone-blocking drug, ovaries were removed to achieve reduction of hormonal activity.

Surgical management of breast cancer is available today throughout our country and is not restricted to few centers. Adequate awareness about this global disease among women to detect painless lump is very essential. Examination by a doctor, mammogram screening and seeking surgical intervention at the earliest can help the patient to a very great extent.

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