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Breast cancer doesn't respect gender

by Isabel Fawcett

The diagnosis of breast cancer can be a devastating one. It may come as a surprise to many people that breast cancer is no respecter of an individual's gender. While women are more commonly diagnosed with breast cancer, men also get the disease. The good news is that the American Cancer Society has published statistic that four out of every five biopsy results are not cancer.

Women and Breast Cancer

Over the course of a lifetime, 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer. While the American Cancer Society (ACS) further reports that there has been a decline in death rates due to cancer between 1975 and 2005, ACS also estimated that in 2009, more than 713,000 women would die from breast cancer.

Prior to 2009, the top-three leading cancers resulting in female deaths were lung, breast and colorectal cancers, in that order. However, the ACS' 2009 estimate shows breast cancer as the leading cause of cancer deaths in women.

Women, therefore, have reasonable cause for concern and heightened awareness of breast cancer.

Men and Breast Cancer

Given the statistics for women and breast cancer, some men may breathe a huge sigh of relief. I suspect that there are many other men who may be oblivious to the fact that a man's breast duct cells may also undergo malignancy changes.

The key difference in male breast cells and female breast cells is related to hormonal shifts that occur with the onset of puberty. In young men, male hormones restrict the growth of breast cells, whereas female hormones promote the growth of breast ducts at puberty.

In stark contrast to breast cancer statistics for women, only 1 in 100 men reportedly develop this form of cancer. Unlike women who are strongly encouraged to undergo screening mammograms, men are not similarly screened, perhaps due to the lower incidence rate of breast cancer in males relative to the high cost of screening mammograms in such a small segment of the population.

For the 1 in 100 males most susceptible to developing breast cancer, absent screening mammograms as a diagnostic resource, self-breast exams are advisable. The next best thing for men in addition to making healthy lifestyle choices, is knowing your family's medical history like the palm of your hand.

Advancing Age and Breast Cancer

The risk of developing breast cancer increases with age. According to NIH published information, the majority of advanced breast cancer cases are diagnosed in women over age 50. Caregivers to elders please take note.

Understanding Cells: Life, Death and Tumors

A Non-Medical Cancer Primer

In human bodies, cells perform the fundamental functions of life. Human life originates within a single cell. Healthy body cells grow by dividing. It is also a normal body function when cells die as part of cell cycles.

Similarly, cancer cells grow, divide, and usually form new, abnormal cells, often tumors, including in other parts of the body in addition to the original tumor site. Instead of body cells dying within cell cycles, cancer cells propagate at an accelerated rate, promoting the formation of new blood vessels and the formation of tumors.

Untreated, cancerous cells potentially have unlimited growth, expanding at the original cancer site and by invasion to other sites in the human body through a process called metastasis.

In its simplest layperson's definition, breast cancer is an accelerated growth of abnormal cells in one or both breasts. Some trigger or triggers within the cell's DNA, thus far unknown to medical science, prevent the cell from functioning as it should. Instead, the cell starts dividing and forming more cells, without rhyme or reason known to medical science so far.

As the cells continue to replicate chaotically, a tumor is formed. Tumors are abnormal benign or malignant masses arising without direct cause from other cells in the human body. Unlike normal body cells, tumors are malfunctioning cells that do not die as normal cells grow and eventually die.

Types of Breast Cancer

Breast cancer originates in the body's breast tissues. There are two more commonly occurring types of breast cancer.

  • Ductal carcinoma originates in the ducts that serve as a conduit to move milk from the breast to the nipple. Most breast cancers are ductal carcinomas.

  • Lobular carcinoma originates in another part of the breast (lobules) that produces milk.

Though less common, breast cancer may originate in other areas of the breast, just as other cancers may originate elsewhere in the human body. Cancers are an equal opportunity disease.

A Few Breast Cancer Risk Factors

There are many factors considered to determine who may be at higher risk for breast cancer, including as listed below.

  • Among men, enlarged breasts are more often associated with breast cancer.

  • In both genders, alcohol consumption may be a risk factor.

  • Men with a family history with of a chromosome defect may be at increased risk.

  • Both men and women may be at increased risk with the administration of estrogen hormones, including as medically administered to many women during menopause.

  • Women whose onset of menstrual periods occurred at an early age may be at increased risk for breast cancer. The same holds true for women who have never had children or who were older at the time of their first live born child.

  • A medical history of colon, ovary or endometrial cancer also may increase an individual's risk.

  • A family history of breast cancer, whether mother, sister, or daughter, is a potential risk factor. Regardless of gender, always disclose any family history of an elder's cancers to the treating physician. If breast cancer is part of your elder's family history, try to get a handle on the relative's age at onset, if possible. If your elder's relative happens to be female, it is important to disclose whether the relative was diagnosed with breast cancer before or after menopause.

Lots of Good News in Breast Cancer Medicine and Support

Even though the mere thought of breast cancer can be overwhelming to any reasonable individual, there is plenty of good news in medical, scientific and treatment advances in managing this chronic disease. As reported by ACS, cancer survival rates overall have increased from 50 percent in the 1970's to 66 percent in 2004, when the most recent cancer survival data was disseminated.

If death rates from cancer are declining, and they have been, public awareness, improved treatment options, and in some instances, healthy lifestyle changes have all contributed to the decline. You can do your part to help sustain declining death rates through heightened awareness and regular breast self-examinations. Knowing that you have done your best in cancer management and eldercare also requires you to seek medical advice in a timely manner.

Don't delay. Every precious second counts when it comes to breast cancer diagnosis and treatment.

Sources, References and Additional Information

American Cancer Society

National Cancer Institute