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Friday, December 1, 2023

Understanding Breast Cancer: Causes, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment

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UTG Medical Students’ Association

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By Oumie Faal
3rd year medical student (UTG)

Breast cancer is one of the most common and widely discussed forms of cancer affecting women worldwide. While it can also occur in men, the vast majority of cases involve women. Understanding breast cancer, its causes, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment options is crucial for early detection and successful management. In this article, we will delve into the intricacies of breast cancer, shedding light on what every individual should know about this disease.

I. Causes of breast cancer

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Breast cancer is a complex disease with multiple factors contributing to its development. While the exact causes are not always clear, several risk factors have been identified:

Genetics: A family history of breast cancer, especially mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, significantly increases the risk.

Hormones: Hormonal factors, such as early menstruation, late menopause, or hormone replacement therapy, can play a role.

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Age: The risk of breast cancer increases with age, with the majority of cases occurring in women over 50.

Diet and lifestyle: Poor diet, excessive alcohol consumption, and lack of physical activity can contribute to breast cancer risk.

Radiation exposure: Previous radiation therapy to the chest area, especially during childhood, can elevate the risk.

II. Symptoms of breast cancer

Early detection of breast cancer greatly improves the chances of successful treatment. Knowing the signs and symptoms is essential for women to seek medical attention promptly. Common symptoms include:

Lump in the breast: The most recognizable symptom is the presence of a painless lump in the breast or underarm area.

Changes in breast appearance: Any unexplained changes in breast size, shape, or skin texture should be examined.

Nipple changes: These can include nipple inversion, discharge, or a rash around the nipple.

Breast pain: While not always indicative of cancer, persistent breast pain should be evaluated.

Swelling: Swelling or redness of the breast, even without a noticeable lump, should not be ignored.

III. Diagnosis

The process of diagnosing breast cancer involves several steps:

Clinical examination: A doctor will perform a physical examination of the breast and lymph nodes to check for abnormalities.

Imaging: Mammography, ultrasound, or MRI scans may be ordered to visualize the breast tissue more clearly.

Biopsy: If a suspicious lump is found, a biopsy is performed to determine if it is cancerous. This involves removing a small sample of tissue for laboratory analysis.

Staging: If cancer is confirmed, further tests like CT scans or bone scans may be done to determine the extent (stage) of the cancer.

IV. Treatment options

The treatment plan for breast cancer depends on various factors, including the type and stage of cancer, as well as the patient’s overall health. Common treatment options include:

Surgery: Surgery is often the initial step to remove the tumor. This can involve a lumpectomy (removal of the tumor and surrounding tissue) or a mastectomy (removal of the entire breast).

Radiation Therapy: After surgery, radiation therapy may be used to target any remaining cancer cells.

Chemotherapy: This systemic treatment uses drugs to kill cancer cells or prevent their growth and may be recommended in various stages of breast cancer.

Hormone therapy: Hormone receptor-positive breast cancers can be treated with medications that block hormone receptors or reduce hormone production.

Targeted therapy: Some breast cancers respond well to targeted drugs that focus on specific molecules involved in cancer growth.

Immunotherapy: In certain cases, immunotherapy drugs can help the immune system fight the cancer.

Clinical trials: Patients may also have the option to participate in clinical trials testing new treatments.

V. Prevention and early detection

While not all breast cancer can be prevented, there are steps individuals can take to reduce their risk and increase the chances of early detection:

Regular Screening: Mammograms and clinical breast exams should be part of routine healthcare for women, especially those over 40.

Know your family history: Understanding your family’s cancer history can help assess your risk.

Healthy lifestyle: Maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly, limiting alcohol consumption, and eating a balanced diet can contribute to overall health.

Breast self-exams: Women should perform regular breast self-exams to become familiar with their breasts and detect any changes.


Breast cancer is a formidable adversary, but with early detection and advances in treatment, it is a battle that can be won. Understanding the causes, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment options is crucial for individuals to take charge of their breast health. Regular screenings, a healthy lifestyle, and awareness of risk factors can play pivotal roles in reducing the impact of breast cancer and improving survival rates.

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