Sujal Torgal Patil
If we analyse our collective health as a society we will find that we have managed to increase the life span or reduce mortality rate due to the advent of modern medicine and infrastructure, but the quality of life has deteriorated a lot. Hence, we are suffering from disorders which are not only complicated but incomprehensible. Cancer is one such disorder that can happen to anybody at any age, without a cause or a causative organism.
Every year World Cancer Day is observed on February 4. Breast cancer is the leading cancer in India amongst women. The WHO data says India will have 1.16 million new cancer cases this year and more than 50 per cent of these will be diagnosed in women and 17,204 more women will fall prey to the disease than men. Moreover, the incidence of breast cancer has gone up by 39.1 per cent between 1990 and 2016 and is the most common cancer among women in India although a small incidence of the male population suffers from breast cancer too.
Breast cancer is cancer that develops in breast cells. Typically, the cancer forms in either the lobules or the ducts of the breast. Lobules are glands that produce milk and the ducts are the pathways that bring the milk from the glands to the nipple. Cancer can also occur in the fatty tissue or the fibrous connective tissue within one’s breast.
The uncontrolled cancer cells often invade other healthy breast tissue and can travel to the lymph nodes under the arms. The lymph nodes are the primary pathway that help cancer cells move to other parts of the body.
Normally, human cells grow and divide to form new cells as the body needs them. When cells grow old or become damaged they die and new cells take their place. When cancer develops, however, this orderly process breaks down. As cells become increasingly abnormal and old or damaged cells survive when they should die and new cells form when they are not needed, these extra cells can divide without stopping and may form growths called tumours. Many cancers form solid tumours, which are masses of tissue. Cancerous tumours are malignant which means they can spread into or invade nearby tissues. Unlike malignant tumours, benign tumours do not spread into or invade nearby tissues.
Cancer is a genetic disease caused by changes to genes that control the way our cells function, especially how they grow and divide. Genetic changes that cause cancer can be inherited from our parents. They can also arise during a person’s lifetime as a result of errors that occur as cells divide or because of damage to DNA caused by certain environmental exposures. Cancer-causing environmental exposures include substances such as the chemicals in tobacco smoke and radiation like ultraviolet rays from the sun. Each person’s cancer has a unique combination of genetic changes.
The cause of cancer is complex and there are many causal factors. In addition to genetic tendencies, carcinogens such as viruses and environmental contaminates, ultraviolet light, radiation from x-rays, nuclear power plants and nuclear weapons testing and the use of immunosuppressive drugs are important factors. In addition, people with a history of autoimmune diseases, whose immune systems are clearly not functioning properly, are also at higher risk. Collectively, poor dietary and lifestyle choices, addictions like tobacco or alcohol, exposure to chemicals or radiations, drug abuse, medicinal abuse are all linked with high risk of cancer. These factors cause the formation and accumulation of endotoxins at the cellular or genetic level which leads to the alteration in the nature of the cell causing hazardous cell growth and thus cancer. Ayurveda gives major importance to the immune status of the individual to combat the ill effects of carcinogens. Suppressed immune system thus becomes an important factor.
There are several risk factors that increase one’s chances of getting breast cancer. However, having any of these doesn’t mean you will definitely develop the disease.
Some risk factors like family history can’t be avoided, other risk factors like smoking can be changed. Risk factors for breast cancer include:
Age: The most invasive breast cancers are found in women over age 55. The risk increases with age.
Having dense breast tissue: Dense breast tissue makes mammograms hard to read and also increases the risk.
Gender: Women are 100 times more likely to develop breast cancer than men.
Genes: Women with certain genetic mutations are at a higher risk.
Early menstruation: If you had your first period before age 12, the risk is higher.
Giving birth at an older age: Women who don’t have their first child until after age 35 have an increased risk of breast cancer.
Hormone therapy: Women who took or are taking postmenopausal oestrogen and progesterone medications to reduce their signs of menopause symptoms have a higher risk of breast cancer.
Inherited risk: If a close female relative has had breast cancer, you have an increased risk for developing it. This includes your mother, grandmother, sister or daughter. If you don’t have a family history of breast cancer, you can still develop breast cancer. In fact, the majority of women who develop it have no family history of the disease.
Late menopause start: Women who do not start menopause until after age 55 are more likely to develop breast cancer.
Never being pregnant: Women who never became pregnant or never carried a pregnancy to full-term are more likely to develop breast cancer.
Previous breast cancer: If you have had breast cancer in one breast, you have an increased risk of developing breast cancer in your other breast or in a different area of the previously affected breast.
Signs and symptoms
Breast cancer may not cause any symptoms in its early stages. In many cases, a tumour may be too small to be felt but an abnormality can still be seen on a mammogram. If a tumour can be felt, the first sign is usually a new lump in the breast that was not there before. However, not all lumps are cancer.
Each type of breast cancer can cause a variety of symptoms. Many of these symptoms are similar, but some can be different.
Symptoms for the most common breast cancers include:
A hard breast lump or tissue thickening that feels different than surrounding tissue and has developed recently (Cancerous growth is usually immovable but can prove otherwise in some cases).
Red, pitted skin over the entire breast.
Peeling, scaling or flaking of skin on the nipple or breast.
Swelling in all or part of the breast.
A discharge (not breast milk) or bloody discharge from the nipple.
A sudden, unexplained change in the shape or size of the breast.
A lump or swelling under the arm.
If you have any of these symptoms, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have breast cancer. For instance, pain in your breast or a breast lump can be caused by a breast cyst. Still, if you find a lump in your breast or have other symptoms, further physical or other examination is mandatory.
(Writer is CMO at Traya Natural Health Centre and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)