Breast cancer is when a cancerous tumor occurs inside the breast. About 1 in 8 women will develop breast cancer during her lifetime. Earlier detection, combined with improvements in therapy, has resulted in improved survival rates. In fact, most women who are diagnosed with breast cancer will not die of the disease. Women detect 90% of breast cancers themselves, often through breast self examination (BSE).
According to the National Cancer Institute, breast cancer is often accompanied by the following signs and symptoms:
Risk factors you cannot change include:
Other risk factors include:
Breast implants, power lines, computer terminals, antiperspirants, and underwire bras do not raise your risk of breast cancer. There is no evidence of a direct link between breast cancer and pesticides.
The National Cancer Institute provides an online tool to help you figure out your risk of breast cancer.
People with the following conditions or characteristics are at a higher than average risk for developing breast cancer:
Despite the relevance of risk factors, 70% to 80% of women with breast cancer have none of the known risk factors.
If you have symptoms associated with breast cancer, see your health care provider immediately. Your provider can help make a diagnosis and help you determine which treatment or combination of therapies will work best for you.
Your provider will do a breast exam and run some laboratory tests, including:
Studies suggest that ultrasound is also effective for differentiating between a cystic (dense) breast mass and a solid (cancerous) tumor. Nuclear imaging techniques like positron emission tomography (PET) and single photon emission tomography (SPECT) may help physicians monitor the growth of tumors. Your doctor may also recommend a surgical biopsy to determine which type of breast cancer you have.
Early detection is important. Annual gynecologic exams play a big role in early detection. Some health authorities recommend mammography every 1 to 2 years for women 40 years of age and older. The United States Committee on Preventive Task Force has suggested that women should not begin screening until age 50 due to false positive rates. However, most health care authorities, including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) strongly disagree. In some cases, mammography may be used in conjunction with ultrasound and other diagnostic modalities. Until there is a consensus, mammography screening should be personalized according to the woman's:
Clinical breast exams should be performed every 1 to 3 years up to the age of 40 and then annually after that. Most authorities also recommend monthly breast self exams. Regular exercise, maintaining a healthy weight, limiting alcohol intake, and limiting postmenopausal hormone therapy may help prevent breast cancer.
Exercise alone reduces the risk for breast cancer by 25% to 30%, and the association seems strongest for those who engage in moderate rather than extreme forms of physical activity. Women who breastfed their babies are also at lower risk of developing breast cancer. Some women who are at high risk of developing breast cancer may choose to take preventive drugs, such as tamoxifen and raloxifene.
Treatment options depend on the:
Along with the patient's age and menopausal status, general health, and breast size.
Your health care provider may prescribe one or more of the following therapies:
Surgery is the most common treatment for breast cancer. The choice of surgeries includes the following:
A comprehensive treatment plan for breast cancer may include a range of complementary and alternative therapies. Many naturally-oriented doctors believe that nutritional supplementation and herbal medications are important for cancer patients. Other doctors are concerned that certain supplements may interfere with conventional cancer therapies. It is important that people educate themselves and inform all of their providers about the therapies they are using. The risk of recurrent breast cancer and death is higher among people who do not receive conventional treatment. CAM therapies did not alter this risk and should not be used as a substitute for standard treatment.
Psychotherapy and support groups may help improve quality of life and survival. CAM therapies such as reflexology, yoga, and spiritual healing have been shown to improve quality of life among people with breast cancer. Make sure all of your doctors know about every therapy you are using, including any supplements you are taking. Work with specialists, keep all of your doctors informed, and know that new research on the risks and benefits of complementary and alternative therapies in cancer medicine are becoming available all the time.
Following these nutritional tips may help reduce symptoms:
You may address nutritional deficiencies with the following supplements. Work with a doctor who has expertise in natural therapies for cancer care before using any supplements. Remember to inform all of your providers about any natural therapies or supplements you are using.
Herbs are a way to strengthen and tone the body's systems. As with any therapy, you should talk to your provider before starting treatment.
An experienced homeopath considers both your symptoms and constitutional type to create an individualized treatment regimen. Work only with a knowledgeable prescriber. Some of the most common homeopathic remedies that may treat symptoms associated with breast cancer are the following:
Acute dose is 3 to 5 pellets of 12X - 30C every 1 to 4 hours until symptoms are relieved.
While acupuncture is not used as a treatment for cancer itself, studies show it can be a valuable therapy for symptoms associated with cancer and the side effects of chemotherapy. In a study of 104 women with breast cancer and nausea from chemotherapy (all of whom were taking antinausea medication), women treated with acupuncture had fewer attacks of nausea than women who received the medication alone.
Other studies suggest that acupuncture can help alleviate fatigue and cognitive dysfunction in breast cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. Acupuncture may also help eliminate pain and hot flashes caused by tamoxifen (a breast cancer medication). One study found that acupuncture markedly improved breathlessness in women with late stages of breast cancer. Acupressure (pressing on rather than needling acupuncture points) has also proved useful in controlling breathlessness and chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting. People can learn how to treat themselves using this technique.
Some acupuncturists prefer to work with people with breast cancer only after they have completed conventional medical cancer therapy. Others will provide acupuncture and herbal therapy during active chemotherapy or radiation. Acupuncturists treat people with breast cancer based on an individualized assessment of the excesses and deficiencies of qi located in various meridians. In many cases of cancer-related symptoms, a qi deficiency is usually detected in the spleen or kidney meridians.
Most complications result from surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, or use of the drug tamoxifen, which is effective in preventing recurrence but may increase a woman's risk of developing endometrial cancer and blood clots. Other potential complications include:
Women with breast cancer are also at significantly increased risk of progressive cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis. The prognosis for breast cancer patients depends primarily on the stage, or extent, of the disease at the time of the initial diagnosis. With increased early detection rates and improved treatments, the 5-year survival rate is greater than 85%.
Breast cancer patients should see their health care provider every 3 months for 18 months to 4 years, then every 6 months thereafter.
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Reviewed By: Steven D. Ehrlich, NMD, Solutions Acupuncture, a private practice specializing in complementary and alternative medicine, Phoenix, AZ. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
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