Breast Cancer Under The Microscope: Look Closer

The word cancer is enough to strike fear into even the toughest of hearts, but fortunately, if caught early enough, it’s not necessarily fatal. This does not mean it’s not serious. Breast cancer is the most common cause of cancer in women both globally and in South Africa. According to South African statistics one in 29 woman will be diagnosed with this cancer.

Breast cancer, in a nutshell, is when cancerous (malignant) cells begin to form in the tissue of the breast. The cancerous cells can then spread from the breast to other parties of the body. It will for instance often spread to the nearby lymph nodes found near the breast under the arm, or into the chest. But if the cancer is caught early it is less likely to spread and can be more easily controlled.

Not all breast cancer is the same. Doctors once believed it is just one disease, but it is now understood to be many diseases. Some forms of the disease are more aggressive and some far less. The good news of this is that doctors now better understand the disease and provide treatment according to specific need.

What Causes Breast Cancer

Causes of this cancer are not completely understood. It can happen to any woman, at just about any time of life. Some men also develop the cancer but is much rarer.

A few high risk factors include:

  • Family history: the risk is much higher if a blood relative had it. A first degree relative, such as mother, daughter or sister, doubles the risk, and two close family members with the disease triples the risk.
  • Lifestyle: heaving drinking (alcohol), not exercising, smoking and poor diet all increase the risk of all cancers and disease, including breast cancer.
  • Obesity: Research has shown overweight or obese woman not only have a higher chance of contracting it, they also have a higher chance of the cancer recurring and are less likely to survive the disease.
  • Age: your risk of getting it increases with age. It is thus important to go for more regular mammograms as you get older (over 50). But younger woman are not immune. Some evidence also suggests that the cancer is often more aggressive in younger woman.

Breast Cancer Survival Rates

Breast cancer is no longer a death sentence. If the disease is caught early enough breast cancer survival rates are high.

Survival rates vary depending on the type and at what stage it is diagnosed.

Women diagnosed with Stage I breast cancer – where the cancer is no larger than 2cm and has not spread outside of the breast – have an 88% survival rate.

For Stage IV – where the cancer has spread to other organs and tissues – the survival rate is only 15%.

Breast Cancer Treatment

There are a number of treatment options for breast cancer, these can include chemotherapy, surgery or hormone therapy amongst others.

Patients will usually be treated with a combination of options.

Surgery will often be performed to remove the cancerous tissue in the breast.

This can include either a lumpectomy; where only the tumor is removed from the breast; or a mastectomy, where the entire breast is removed.

In chemotherapy for breast cancer patients drugs will be administered to shrink, and hopefully kill, the cancer cells.

The drugs can either be given through pills or intravenously through a drip. Sometimes doctors will use pills and an intravenous drip for chemotherapy.


When it comes to breast cancer it is best not to take any chances.

The Radiological Society of South Africa recommends women aged 40 or older have a mammogram every 1 to 2 years while woman between 50 and 75 should have an annual mammogram.

If you are at high risk of contracting the disease for any of the above reasons it is worth having regular check-ups from a younger age.

Women who have a close family member with the disease should start getting mammograms 5 years before the age their family member was diagnosed.

In addition to regular checks, a healthy lifestyle can make all the difference. Exercise and a healthy diet will not only prevent the cancer but a range of other diseases too.

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