What is a breast lump?
A cancerous breast lump is often described as hard, irregular, and fixed meaning that it is not freely mobile within the breast. It can occur in any part of the breast but is often found in the upper outer side of the breast, near the armpit. Cancerous breast lumps usually start out painless and only become painful after the disease has significantly progressed. It can vary in size from small to large and will typically get bigger in size as the disease progresses.
Other signs of breast cancer include dimpling of the skin, nipple retraction, bloody nipple discharge and recent breast anisometry.
Causes of Breast Cancer?
The human body is made up of trillions of cells each of which have a specified life span. During the life of a healthy cell, it will multiply by dividing itself a number of times to produce daughter cells that will take over its function when it dies. This cycle of cell division and normal cell death is tightly regulated by specialized genes in our DNA. In normal conditions, only healthy cells are allowed to multiply and produce daughter cells and this prevents the multiplication of damaged cells which would be unable to function adequately.
Cell damage is caused by charged particles called free radicals which are produced by ionising radiation like x-rays, chemicals like benzene, some viruses and certain foods. Once these free radicals get into the body they are capable of irreversibly damaging the DNA of exposed cells and once this occurs, the deformed cell is incapable of performing its normal function. The body counters this cell damage by an Antioxidant clearance system which prevents the formation of free radicals and minimises their effect as well as a sentinel system known as Apoptosis which identifies damaged cells and ensures that they are all killed and removed from the body.
Sometimes however, this double security layer can fail if circulating levels of antioxidants are not adequate enough to prevent free radical formation and if the resulting damaged cell escapes apoptosis. If this damaged cell begins to replicate itself and its daughter cells also divide and produce more damaged cells, the resulting mass of unhealthy cells is what is known as a cancer. Healthy cells have programmed within their DNA a specific number of times that they are allowed to replicate and this ensures that tissues and organs retain a particular shape and size. Damaged cells on the other hand have lost the replication limit control and this means that a group of cancer cells can go on replicating as often as possible and can increase in size indefinitely.
One of the cardinal causes of cancer is the failure of the sentinel system of apoptosis and this system failure is more likely to occur in cells that grow rapidly and have a rapid turnover of cells. It’s almost as though there are only a few customs officers looking out for suspected smugglers at a very busy border post. Even if each officer worked all day, there would still be more contraband items entering through this post than would have if it were a less busy border. This is one of the reasons that the breast is prone to developing cancer because as soon as puberty begins until menopause, the breast tissue is under a perpetual cycle of accelerated growth followed by accelerated regression driven by the female sex hormones. This rapid cell growth and regression makes it more likely for damaged cells to escape detection and by so doing replicate to form a cancerous growth.
Also, certain families have a gene that can make having breast cancer more likely and these genes are the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. A woman who inherits this gene has a higher chance of coming down with breast cancer. Gene testing for the BRCA1&2 genes are available. If you have had more than three members of your family who have had breast cancer, it may be beneficial to find out your BRCA status.
Is breast cancer preventable?
Breast cancer, like all cancers is caused by DNA damage to cells and theoretically, the best way to prevent cancer is to prevent cell damage. However, our modern lifestyle puts us in contact with a vast number of potential carcinogens on a daily basis and if you read the news, then you may have concluded that almost everything is cancerous these days. From second hand cigarette smoke to plastic bottles releasing xeno-oestrogens to free radicals in some foods, it seems like there is no escaping these cancer causing substances.
The organic movement in the US, UK and Canada encourages people to shun processed foods and chemicals and return to consuming only natural products. This is even more attainable here in Nigeria as most of our vegetables, poultry and agricultural produce are farm grown, free range and without harmful chemicals.
Eating foods rich in antioxidants is also very helpful as this will prevent oxidative damage to cells and minimise the effect of free radicals in the system.
Eating healthy foods, drinking lots of water and exercising daily can also help keep the immune system healthy.
Finally, stop smoking, maintain a healthy weight, cut down on alcohol consumption, avoid known carcinogens and check your breasts regularly to ensure early detection.