Any woman (and even men) can get Breast Cancer, which is why it is so important to know about the disease and all potential treatments for it. It is often not clear why some people get cancer and others do not. The more we learn about the disease, the better we get at curing or managing it.

What is cancer?

It is natural in life that we are all born, grow and all eventually die. The cells that make up our bodies are just the same. They have a life cycle which involves multiplying, growing and eventually dying in a process called ‘apoptosis’.

In cancer, some of the cells of the body will misbehave and do not carry out their normal cycle. They will continue to grow and multiply, but will not die. Eventually they will spend all of their time multiplying and none of their time working as normal cells do, which leads to  the growth of a tumour. This tumour invades the normal cells and makes new blood cells to feed its growth. The process soon gets out of control.

Eventually the tumour decides to break up and uses the bloodstream and lymphatic cleaning system of the body to travel to distant parts of the body, such as the brain and the bones, the liver and the lungs. There these small cancer cells will settle and begin to multiply in their new position, destroying the normal functional tissue in that area. These are called ‘metastases’ and the increase in these tumours will eventually lead to death.

Is Breast Cancer common?

Breast Cancer is the most common cancer to affect women worldwide. There is no adult woman, population or culture that is free from the risk of getting Breast Cancer. The rates of cancer vary throughout the world, from 1 in 8 women in the United States to much less in Japan and the Far East. There are not accurate statistics for the prevalence of Breast Cancer in South Africa, but we think they may be similar to those in the United States because we have a similar diet and lifestyle.

Worldwide, Breast Cancer is also the leading cause of cancer deaths in women, although there has been a dramatic decrease in cancer deaths over the past 40 years due to increased awareness and increased screening of women.

Who gets Breast Cancer?

Anyone with breast tissue can suffer from Breast Cancer; it even affects men. Women of every age are at risk, including young women in their late teens, 20s or 30s. Breast Cancer has even been seen in girls as young as nine years old. Your risk of getting Breast Cancer increases with your age, so as you get older you become more and more likely to get Breast Cancer. A woman under 40 years has approximately 1 in 230 risk of getting Breast Cancer, rising to 1 in 29 after the age of 65.

It doesn’t matter what race or culture you are, all groups suffer from Breast Cancer. Women of all walks of life are at risk, whether rich or poor, healthy or unhealthy, insured or uninsured. Most women (more than three quarters) do not even have risk factors that put them at high risk of Breast Cancer. It depends on whether your cells decide to stop behaving and start multiplying irregularly and progressively.

Many women who get Breast Cancer ask “Why me? What did I do to cause this?” It is very normal to ask this type of question, but the answer is: Nothing. There is no single cause of Breast Cancer and no single event that will bring it on. There is nothing any women does or doesn’t do which causes Breast Cancer. It is an unfortunate event of life which we work to lessen through early diagnosis and treatment. There are however lifestyle changes that can lower one’s risk, but at this stage it is not preventable.

Women of every age are at risk, including young women in their late teens, 20s or 30s.

How treatable is Breast Cancer if caught early?

All cancer is treatable and there are good options for management and cure irrespective of the size of the cancer when it is found. When Breast Cancer is detected early, before it invades tissues outside the breast, the survival rate is as high as 95%.

Breast Cancer that has not invaded in to the breast tissue, but is still in the ducts (known as carcinoma in-situ) has a 99% cure rate. Often surgery alone is appropriate treatment. If a small cancer invades in to the breast tissue, but does not spread to the glands, the prognosis is very good. The treatment of cancer is tailored more and more to the ‘personality’ of the cancer; how it behaves and what it responds to, not its size alone.

Do chances of survival drop (and by how much?) if caught later?

When cancer is confined to the breast it is easier to treat and be sure of a cure. Patients do not die of cancer when it is confined to the breast. It is the spread of cancer to the brain, bones, liver and lungs which will eventually cause problems. The aim of Breast Cancer awareness and screening is to catch cancer early before it can escape the breast, breakthrough the lymph glands under the arm (the security guards of the breast) and spread from there to the rest of the body like a wave of terrorists that can hide away and reappear in the future.

Many of the more aggressive types of treatment for Breast Cancer such as chemotherapy are based on catching and killing these spreading cells. Even if the cancer has spread to the bones, up to 75% of patients may still be alive in five years after diagnosis.

Even if the cancer has spread to the bones, up to 75% of patients may still be alive in five years after diagnosis.