The number of survivors of breast cancer has increased in recent years. The reason for this is the increase in people opting for early detection procedures, which have contributed to the discovery of many cancers in their initial stages. This makes the treatment more effective when cancer treatments in general, and breast cancer in particular, are witnessing qualitative leaps and significant progress, leading to an increase in average age and a considerable improvement in survival rates.
However, this does not negate that breast cancer remains the most lethal for women. Therefore, raising awareness in communities is one of the main strategies adopted by the World Health Organization, as this step is the way to prevention, early detection, and subsequently allowing the patient to get the appropriate diagnosis and treatment.
How does it happen?
Breast cancer occurs when its tissues multiply uncontrollably and grow beyond control. It spreads when cancerous cells enter the bloodstream or lymphatic system and then move to other body parts. Most breast tumors are benign and not cancerous.
Breast cancer differs from other cancers in that it shows some signs that can be detected early, such as self-examination of the breast or mammography and ultrasound imaging. This emphasizes the importance of early screening to see these cases. In other cases, where these signs are not visible, the disease can be detected early through regular check-ups, making treatment more accessible.
Some factors increase the likelihood of developing breast cancer, such as smoking, late pregnancy, exposure to high radiation levels, and others. Obesity also increases the risk of breast cancer in women after menopause. Conversely, physical activity is associated with reduced risk.
The genetic factor, with the gene mutation responsible for breast cancer (BRCA1 – BRCA2), is one of the disease’s most critical and widespread causes. Studies have shown that genetic predisposition signals the risk of many women from the same family, close relatives of the first or second degree, getting breast and/or ovarian cancer. Suspicion increases when these diseases develop early.
However, it is difficult to prevent most breast cancers. Therefore, doctors emphasize the importance of regular follow-up and early detection screenings.
Dense breast tissue is among the factors that increase the likelihood of developing breast cancer. Women with high breast density are 4-5 times more likely to develop breast cancer than women with low breast density. Breast density is determined through mammography, not by palpation (touch).
There are several different types of breast cancer, which are determined based on the type of cells affected in the breast. Generally, they are not life-threatening; however, a healthcare professional should examine any lump or change in the breast to determine if it is benign or malignant and if it might affect the risk of developing cancer in the future.
Breast cancers develop from cells in the mammary gland. Most often, the affected cells belong to the milk ducts that gather milk or to the lobules where milk is produced. There are also ductal carcinomas and lobular carcinomas.
Other types of breast cancer, such as medullary, papillary, or even tubular cancers, are rare.
The cancer is localized if cancerous cells remain confined to the milk duct or lobule. However, when cancerous cells invade surrounding tissues, the cancer becomes invasive or aggressive and can spread outside the breast if not diagnosed early.
Determining treatment varies based on several factors, including the type, size, and location of the tumor in the breast, the characteristics of the cancer cells, the condition of the lymph nodes, and whether it has spread outside the breast, among others.
Thus, treatments can range from chemotherapy, and radiation therapy, to surgical treatment. Depending on what’s best for each case, one or more of these methods may be used.
There are several types of chemotherapy, and its side effects can range from lethargy, nausea, loss of appetite, heat in the hands and feet, and common issues such as hair loss and other symptoms.
As for the excision, not all cases are treated the same, as the excision varies with the factors of the disease.
Some patients require only the tumor to be removed, or only the gland to be removed while preserving the skin and nipple, or removing the gland and the nipple while protecting the skin. The last type is complete removal, which doesn’t mean preceding chemotherapy.
It’s important to emphasize that early detection and diagnosis of the disease are among the most influential factors in treatment success.
For survivors and those affected… How can you reduce the progression of breast cancer?
For survivors of breast cancer and those currently diagnosed with it receiving the necessary treatment, adopting a healthy lifestyle in terms of diet and physical activity reduces the likelihood of cancer progression and the occurrence of relapse after recovery, according to studies.
Good nutrition is considered a supportive element in recovering from breast cancer. Patients, during treatment, need to follow a healthy diet to help the body fight the malignant tumor and alleviate the side effects of chemotherapy or radiation therapy.
A healthy diet for a breast cancer patient has a significant impact. Most research on the potential link between diet and the risk of recurrent breast cancer has focused on broad dietary habits rather than specific foods.
Some nutrients such as fiber, soy products (protein), and healthy fats should be added to the diet to combat breast cancer.
There’s no specific food to avoid getting breast cancer or experiencing a new relapse. Still, it’s possible to prevent cancer by:
- Consuming more vegetables, fruits, and whole grains.
- Reducing fat intake to less than 30% of total calories.
- Avoiding smoked foods.
- Losing excess weight and achieving a healthy weight.
Foods to avoid when diagnosed with breast cancer include spicy and acidic meals. One should also avoid raw or undercooked foods as they increase the risk of infection, avoid processed and refined carbohydrates, and reduce sugar consumption.
Regarding physical activity for a breast cancer patient, research has shown that weight gain or obesity increases the risk of recurrent breast cancer. A relationship exists between maintaining a healthy body mass index before and after the diagnosis and surviving breast cancer.
Therefore, abstaining from smoking, exercising, maintaining a healthy weight, and consuming healthy foods are essential steps for women to follow to keep the cancer threat at bay.
One of the correct first steps in the exhausting treatment journey.
Breast cancer makes a woman live in a terrible psychological state. The reason is the symbolism of the breast and its importance to her femininity and body image. This makes her feel a disturbance in her psychological balance, aside from the nature of cancer and its troubles.
The patient experiences an inner psychological conflict. The first stage is denying reality and not accepting the idea that she has breast cancer. Bouts of anger overtake her, and fear about what awaits her leads her into a spiral of deep sadness and tension that might end in depression. Eventually, she comes to terms with reality.
A patient with breast cancer feels profound emotional distress, one of the most common mental health problems among breast cancer patients. They suffer from significant emotional disturbance that affects their daily life activities.
Depression is one of the main psychological conditions that can affect the patient, where she is dominated by negative thoughts, despair about the future, feeling worthless, decreased concentration, and avoidance of communicating with others.
Some patients might have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This condition affects individuals who have experienced a traumatic event that exposed them to physical harm or a significant psychological threat. This includes cancer patients who also deal with issues related to their safety and mortality.
- Reliving the moment.
- Intense painful memories of the diagnosis and treatment stages.
- Avoiding places or people that remind the patient of the traumatic diagnosis experience.
In general, a breast cancer patient might suffer from decreased performance and activity, poor concentration, memory loss, changes in sexual life, and the like, depending on the treatment stage. Consequently, some breast cancer patients may lose confidence and have emotional instability.
What’s the solution?
Caring for the psychological aspect of a cancer patient, in general, is one of the most essential treatment steps. Psychological therapy helps treat breast cancer, given the close relationship between mental state and the human immune system.
Family support can also improve the overall outcome. Therefore, addressing concerns about the patient’s mental state is essential. Generally speaking, discussing with someone they love or trust benefits many cancer patients. It’s also useful for the family and friends to understand more about the patient’s condition and their role in supporting her.
The hospital should provide a specialized consultant to speak with the patient if this isn’t available for complicated cases or those in their final stages, where anxiety and depression increase; the family should seek an evaluation and treatment if necessary, providing care with love and generosity and coordinating each family member’s role and when they will provide assistance.
In general, there is a link between a person’s immune system and their mental state. If the patient is highly anxious and depressed, their immune system might be negatively affected and thus become less effective in responding positively to treatment and vice versa. This can also negatively affect the patient’s motivation to get appropriate help.
Therefore, families and friends should understand the level of support they need to provide and seek a specialist’s assessment if they suspect the patient is depressed.
Research and studies have shown that breast cancer patients who receive support from their families are less stressed and deliver better results in treatment. This support can increase the patient’s adaptation to her health condition and boost positive behavior.
How to Deal with a Breast Cancer Patient?
Perhaps what emotionally hurts the patient most is her feeling that those around her pity her. Instead, one should treat her usually and provide support to continue the treatment, which is the best solution.
Primarily, the family, friends, and partner should help a breast cancer patient continue her life as normally as possible and avoid giving her any sense that she is sick and should stay in bed or at home.
It is also essential to instill positive energy in the breast cancer patient by talking about survivors who overcame the disease. It’s best to involve former patients to benefit from their experience, giving the patient positive energy and hope to continue the treatment journey and fight cancer.
The breast cancer patient should be encouraged to raise her children and assist them with their studies in the same manner she was accustomed to, as much as possible.
The supporting environment around the patient should create a recreational atmosphere by going for walks, having specified meals outside, and encouraging her to sit with her beloved friends or travel whenever possible.