What is breast cancer?

In South Africa a woman has on average a 1:35 chance of getting breast cancer, according to the Cancer Association of South Africa. Breast cancer is a lot more prevalent among white SA women than among black SA women, and generally also among women living in urban areas. The risk among white women is 1 in 13, the same as it is in Europe. The incidence in black women is as low as 1 in 81, but there are signs that it is increasing.

Two out of every hundred people diagnosed with breast cancer in South Africa are men, according to the Breast Health Foundation.

When a malignant tumour starts growing in the breast, it can spread to other surrounding tissues, or it can spread to other areas in the body. This happens when abnormal cells divide in an uncontrolled manner, forming a mass of extra tissue, also known as a tumour.

The female breast is made up of milk-producing glands (lobules), ducts through which the milk flows to the nipple, and other soft tissue. Abnormal cells can form a malignant tumour in any of these areas.

Most breast cancers start in the cells that line the milk ducts, followed by the lobules, and lastly in the breast tissue itself. Breast cancer is often spread through the lymph nodes, which line the breast area.

Breast cancer often manifests as a lump in the breast, but not all lumps are cancerous. Benign breast lumps and cysts are fairly common and many women experience these before the onset of their menstrual period.

Breast lumps should not be ignored, and if one is noticed, or felt, it is advisable to go to the doctor to have it checked out.

Here are brief explanations of a few terms often used when discussing breast cancer:

Carcinoma: a cancer that starts in the lining layer of the breast. These can be ductal carcinomas or lobular carcinomas.

Adenocarcinoma: a carcinoma that grows in the glandular tissue of the breast.

Carcinomas in situ: an early-stage cancer which has not spread beyond the ducts and invaded other breast tissue.

Invasive carcinomas: this carcinoma has grown beyond the layer of cells where it started.

Sarcoma: These cancers start in the connective tissue of the breast.


Read more:

Diagnosing breast cancer

Treating breast cancer

Symptoms of breast cancer

Sources: Cancer.org; Breast Health Foundation

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