One of the most common forms of cancer affecting women is the breast cancer.

Our body contains not billions, but trillions of living cells, and when these cells grow and multiply out of control, it leads to abnormal cell growth, which may invade other parts of the body too. This is the beginning of cancer.

So, what exactly is breast cancer, what are its symptoms and causes, how can it be prevented (if at all), what are the treatment options available, the diagnostic procedures and the follow up care?

 All these points will be explored in depth in our four part series on Breast Cancer.

What Is Breast Cancer?

When the cells in the breast tissues have multiplied uncontrollably leading to the formation of a small tumor, it is known as breast cancer. These cells may  spread to other body tissues too, which is then known as metastatic or advanced stage of breast cancer.

However, not all tumors are cancerous, they may be benign and the only way to know this is to have it examined by a doctor.

Symptoms Of Breast Cancer

The first and the most important symptom is a lump in the breast or the underarm. Though it may be due to many other benign conditions, but it is in your best interests to get it examined by a doctor, if the lump does not go away after a few days.

Unexplained weight loss or weight gain, bloating, tenderness in the breast, changes in the lymph nodes, or the breast, are some of the other symptoms which may or may not occur in breast cancer patients.

If you have the slightest doubt, it is always wise to consider going to a doctor ,who may then suggest ultrasound, mammogram or a biopsy to know more.

Risk Factors/ Causes Of Breast Cancer

Before we discuss the risk factors, it is important to understand that these are just the general outlines, and having one or more of these factors, does not necessarily mean that a person will develop breast cancer.

Some of the risk factors for breast cancer include ageing, family history of the cancer (specially in close relatives), severe liver condition, previous exposure to chest radiation, having the cancer once already, genetics (mutation in BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes), lesions in the breast, higher age at first childbirth, being overweight, long term use of Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT), excessive alcohol and tobacco consumption.

Stages Of Breast Cancer

Based on the size of the tumor and the area to which it has spread, these are the diagnostic stages of breast cancer –

Stage 1

The tumor is less than 2cm in size and the cancer is localized to the breasts.

Stage 2A

The tumor is less than 2cm, but has spread to the lymph nodes of the underarm, or if the size is between 2cm and 5cm, but there are no cancer cells in the lymph nodes.

Stage 2B

The tumor is more than 5cm in size, but has not spread to the lymph nodes or the size is between 2cm and 5cm with cancer cells in the lymph nodes.

Stage 3A

The tumor is more than 5cm in size and has spread to the lymph nodes.

Stage 3B

The tumor may be of any size but has spread to the chest wall, skin and internal mammary lymph nodes.

Stage 3C

The tumor may be of any size but has spread to at least 10 auxiliary lymph nodes.

Stage 4

The tumor may be of any size but has spread to other body parts like lungs, liver, brain etc.

You can also read about:

Breast Cancer – Diagnosis and Treatment

Breast Cancer – Prevention and Recurrence

Breast Cancer – Coping and Support