Breast cancer cells can be found in the breast tissue, lymph nodes, or ducts in the breast. In the early stages of the disease, breast cancer cells can be very difficult to detect because they have not yet formed lumps or masses. In later stages of the disease, however, they can become metastatic and travel to other parts of the body, which is often much more difficult to treat.
Women should perform monthly self-exams to detect any suspicious lumps in the breasts. There are numerous sites on the Internet that explain how to perform a monthly self-exam. While these exams are useful because they are easy to perform, they can only detect breast cancer cells that have become lumps.
Since the self-exam can only find lumps, annual screenings are recommended to detect small amounts of breast cancer cells that have yet to grow large enough to form a lump. Although there are several types of screening options available, the most common and cost-effective is the mammogram. Mammograms use beams of high energy to see inside the breasts, making it possible for doctors to find potentially cancerous tumors not detectable with a self-exam.
When a doctor believes a patient might have breast cancer, she or he will order additional diagnostic tests. A definitive diagnosis for breast cancer usually requires taking tissue samples from the breast. Depending on the type of breast cancer cells that a doctor thinks might be present, the patient might only need to tolerate a few needles. Some types of cancer are difficult to detect, though, so a surgical biopsy might be needed.
These tissue samples are sent to a lab, where testing is performed to determine the presence or absence of breast cancer cells.
If a patient is diagnosed with breast cancer cells, she and her doctor will develop a treatment plan to remove the cancer. In some cases, surgical removal of the cancerous cells or tumors is the preferred method. Some patients undergo mastectomies to prevent the cancer from recurring. Others only need to have a small tumor removed.
Surgical treatments are almost always more effective when they are combined with chemotherapy or radiation treatment. Chemotherapy uses powerful drugs to kill the breast cancer cells. Since healthy cells can often recover more quickly than breast cancer cells, the cancer dies while the patient survives.
Radiation treatment follows a similar strategy. Beams of radiation are aimed at the breast cancer cells, or radiated materials are implanted in the body near the cancerous cells. Since the healthy cells recover more quickly, the focused radiation can kill off the cancer cells.
Treating breast cancer often causes unwanted side effects, so it is important for women and men to make healthy decisions that will help them prevent breast cancer cells from forming. This means managing a healthy weight through diet and exercise, avoiding alcoholic beverages, and visiting physicians regularly for screening tests. Those who recognize symptoms at cancer’s early stages have higher survival rates, so if any suspicious symptoms arise, a doctor should be consulted immediately.