Breast cancer starts when there is an abnormal growth of cells in the breast. Typically, these proliferated cells form a tumour and are felt as a lump in either or both of the breasts. A malignant tumour may even spread and grow into surrounding tissues or to distant areas of the body.

Breast cancer commonly affects women, but even men can get it. It accounts for 16% of all cancers that affects females and 18.2% of all cancer deaths are due to breast cancer.

Headaches, a rash or swelling are some of the primary symptoms of breast cancer. Patients may notice a thickened tissue or lump in the breast. Even though not all breast lumps are cancerous, the patient should consult a doctor as soon as any lump or change in the breast is noticed. An oncologist can check the malignancy of the tumour.

Below are some important questions a patient should ask about breast cancer diagnosis:

What is the origin of my breast cancer?

Typically, breast tumours are classified in a number of ways. The area of breast cancer origin indicates whether your cancer may spread to other regions and the kind of treatment required. The most common type of breast cancer is the one that begins in the milk ducts (70%), some originate in the milk-producing glands (10%) and others may start in the nipple, breast connective tissue, linings of blood vessels or lymph vessels.

What is the size of the tumour?

The tumour size dictates the course of the treatment. Typically, doctors emphasize on the size of the tumour to decide on further treatment techniques. An MRI, ultrasound or mammogram may be conducted to assess the size of the tumour.

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Is the tumour restricted to the originally affected area or spreading to surrounding tissues?

The doctor first examines whether the tumour is spreading to distant areas of the body or is contained. Oncologists may check for the spread of tumour to the lymph nodes that play an important role in the immune system to figure out the severity of the condition.

 

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What is the stage and grade of the tumour?

The stage of the tumour refers to its size and extent of spread to other regions. Cancer restricted to the breast is called localized cancer, while metastatic cancer spreads to other organs. Cancer stage is symbolized by Stages I to IV. The higher the stage, the larger the tumour is. The grade of the tumour is determined based on how different it looks from the healthy cells under a microscope.

What is the status of the hormone receptor?

Oestrogen and progesterone hormones play an important role in breast cancer development and the rate at which it progresses. Cancer cells may have oestrogen and progesterone receptors, allowing them to detect hormone signal molecules in the blood. This, in turn, fuels the growth of cancerous cells. Cancer cells that do not have these receptors are unable to tap growth-signalling message and therefore, there is no further growth.

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What is the status of my human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2)?

This is another type of growth signal receptor, which is present on breast cancer cells. Tumours that produce more than normal level of HER2 may grow aggressively, but they respond well to treatment drugs.

What are the chances of the cancer returning or spreading to other areas?

Oncologists specifically look at the size of the tumour, HER2 status, hormone receptors, grade and stage to assess the likelihood of cancer returning back or spreading to other regions of the body. In addition, the doctor may suggest a few medical tests to confirm the risk of recurrence of breast cancer in the future.

What is the suggested plan for treatment after diagnosis?

Based on the assessment of the tumour, the oncologist may recommend a surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, hormone blockers or drug therapy as a part of breast cancer treatment. The choice of treatment may depend on the size of the tumour, the risk and whether lymph nodes are involved or not.;;

What side effects might I experience during treatment?

Breast cancer medication cause fatigue, darkening of skin, lymphedema or irritation of breast skin. The oncologist may help provide a clear view of the side effects that you may encounter during the course of treatment and guidance on how to cope with the stress.