Breast cancer infects thousands each year and a large segment of the population find out too late. Like any other cancer, breast cancer typically forms as a tumor, ranging from one to five centimeters. This is most often felt as a lump. A complex staging system defines the severity of the tumor and doctors determine the stage by examining variables such as tumor size, location, and the speed of multiplication and spread. There are five stages broken into sub-stages which are crucial in determining the aggressiveness of treatment needed.
In its early stages, breast cancer is easily treatable and not considered a life threatening disease. Stage 0 or ductal carcinoma in situ is a precancerous condition when abnormal cells are found in the lining of the breast (Stages of Breast Cancer). They have not yet spread to other tissues in the breast but possess the potential to do so. The abnormal cells normally do not become invasive cancer, but increase the chance of developing more complex cancer in later years. Stage I is also simply analyzed as a tumor that is 2 centimeters or smaller and has not spread beyond the breast. A lumpectomy to remove the tumor and a round of chemotherapy eliminates the threat of cancer.
As breast cancer advances into stages II and III, severity of treatment rises. In stage IIA, the cancer has spread to the auxiliary lymph nodes (the lymph nodes under the arm) or the tumor is 2 centimeters and smaller and has spread, or the tumor is larger than 2 centimeters but not larger than 5 centimeters. In stage IIB, cancer has spread to the auxiliary lymph nodes and is larger than 5 centimeters (“Stages of Breast Cancer”).
Stage III is when treatment begins to delve into surgical methods such as mastectomies with much more serious repercussions. In stage IIIA and B, cancer has spread beyond the breast to lymph nodes or tissues and muscles within the chest wall (“Stages of Breast Cancer”). Stage IIIC is divided into operable and inoperable stages. The breast cancer is still operable if cancer is found in lymph nodes beneath the arm or collarbone, but is inoperable if cancer has spread above the collarbone and into the neck. It is important to note that while Stage III is intensely advanced, treatment options are still available such as chemotherapy and drug cocktails. The only stage of cancer that is virtually untreatable is stage IV cancer, or metastatic breast cancer. In this instance, cancer has spread to distant organs in the body, beginning with the bones and eventually invading the lungs and liver (“Advanced (Metastatic) Breast Cancer”). Treatment for this stage consists of lessening pain for the patient and prolonging their life rather than ridding the body of cancer.
While most breast cancers take the form of tumors and are organized according to the staging system, in recent years a deadly variance has emerged. Inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) is an extremely rare but deadly form of breast cancer that kills 60% of its victims within five years of diagnoses (Ackerman 10). This high death rate can be attributed to the absence of a tumor or lump and so is not caught by routine self-examinations or mammograms. This lack of overt evidence has baffled doctors and researchers in recent years. Several symptoms include redness, swelling and warmth in the breast, which many attribute to natural occurrences during the menstrual cycle, and so do not think to question their doctor about possible symptoms (Ackerman 10). The most obvious warning flag is the presence of a rash or bruised skin that does not heal. Las Vegas school teacher Pat Wintermute thought she had a simple breast infection and wanted to deny her symptoms. After the rash grew larger and did not respond to treatment with antibiotics, she was diagnosed with IBC in 2005 and is currently still undergoing treatment (“Inflammatory Breast Cancer Becoming More Common”). Wintermute admitted that she had never heard of this form of breast cancer before her condition.
If losing one’s health and sense of infallibility was not enough, many women associate breast cancer with a loss of femininity, especially if they undergo a mastectomy and lose their breasts. Breasts are associated with attractiveness and sexuality in the Western culture, and many women fear they will appear grotesque or unattractive following surgery (Breast Cancer). The easiest way to alleviate these fears is to talk to a counselor or family.
Much of the population may wish to persist in its belief that breast cancer is a strictly post- menopausal women’s disease, but the truth is, it affects everyone. Husbands lose their wives, children lose their mothers, and the emotional devastation reaches far beyond the patient. Because the public largely still connects breast cancer with older women, many misconceptions exist about the disease. The lack of clear information can lead many to assume false fear or hope.
Ackerman, Todd. “Trial in Breast Cancer Therapy Proves Success.” Houston Chronicle 3.15.Dec. 2006: 10A. TCR Collection. NewsBank Inc. Gilbert School Lib., Gilbert, AZ. 26 Sept. 2007 .
“Advanced (Metastatic) Breast Cancer.” Imaginis: The Women’s Health Resource. 2007. Imaginis Corporation. 13 Nov. 2007 http://www.imaginis.com/breasthealth/metastatic2.asp>.
“Stages of Breast Cancer.” National Cancer Institute. 19 July 2007. U.S. National Institutes of Health. 26 Sept. 2007 .