Edited by Mirabella Chan
As an initial disclaimer, we recognize that not all people with breast anatomy identify as a woman, however we will use the term “woman” or “women” in the body of this article to describe genetic females. And while breast cancer is more common in genetic females, genetic males may also be impacted.
First, what is breast cancer?
Breast cancer, like many other types of solid cancers, is characterized by uncontrolled cell growth and division as well as dysfunctional cell death signalling pathways. These abnormal processes disrupt the important balance between cell death and cell division typically present in the body’s tissues. Breast cancer often starts in breast ducts (“ductal carcinoma”) or lobules (“lobular carcinoma"). Breast cancer begins in a localized area of the breast but can spread to other areas of the body. Specific subsets of breast cancers express certain receptors (e.g., HER2-positive breast cancer) or are hormone related (e.g., estrogen receptor (ER) positive and progesterone receptor (PR) positive breast cancer). Knowing these factors helps to guide specific treatment.
Women should know to look for hard, immovable lumps in breast tissue and signs of abnormal nipple discharge. It should be noted however, that the identification of a lump does not confirm nor deny a cancerous group of cells. Further evaluation is required to identify whether any abnormal tissue is cancerous. Locally advanced breast cancer can present with enlarged lymph nodes in the armpit or skin changes such as redness, thickening or a specific dimpling of the skin called peau d’orange.
Breast Cancer Screening
Screening programs are crucial for identifying patients who have cancer, even in patients who have not yet developed symptoms. Regular screening also allows for early treatment initiation before the disease becomes widespread. Screening mammography is used in Canada, which is a specific x-ray of the breast from different angles.
The Canadian Cancer Society provides the following recommendations for breast cancer screening:
Age 40--49: Talk to your doctor about your risk of developing breast cancer, as well as benefits and limitations of getting a mammogram
Age 50--74: Get a mammogram every 2 years
Age 75+: Talk to your doctor about whether it is appropriate for you to get a mammogram