What causes breast cancer?

Dear Doctor,

Are there actual causes of breast cancer? Can it be treated successfully? Anne Marie

Dear Anne Marie,

Breast cancer is abnormal proliferation of the breast tissue. The precise nature as to why it happens is not known. But certain risk factors have been identified.

Advancing age is one of them. The risk of breast cancer increases after 50 years of age. A family history of breast cancer is yet another risk factor. A woman having a blood relative like a mother, an aunt or sister having breast cancer, has two to three times greater risk of developing breast cancer. Specific genes have been identified, which are linked to breast cancer. African American women have a greater risk of developing breast cancer before menopause as compared to Caucasian women. Women who have had breast lumps or ovarian or breast cancer previously, are more susceptible to develop breast cancer.

Estrogen influences increased cell division and this may turn cancerous later on. Early onset of menstruation, late menopause, taking oral contraceptive pills for long periods, has been identified as a risk factor for breast cancer. Not having children, having children late in life, not breastfeeding a child, are also risk factors for developing breast cancer.

Regarding the lifestyle, a high fatty diet, obesity, use of alcohol, have been linked to breast cancer.

It is diagnosed by physical examination, mammography, and CT scan chest and confirmed by biopsy. Treatment depends on the stage of cancer, other medical conditions and individual choice. In early stages, breast cancer is treatable by surgery. This includes cancer limited to one breast or spread to adjoining lymph nodes. Therefore, awareness about breast cancer and early detection is important. Early detection is possible through self-examination of breasts and mammography. Women should learn self-examination. Any doubtful lump should be reported and screened further to confirm or exclude breast cancer.

Palliative surgery, chemotherapy, hormonal therapy and radiation therapy are other modalities that are used singly or in combination for treatment, depending on the stage of cancer, overall health of the patient and patient’s choice.