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The Heart of Breast Cancer

Alexander James Ozonoff

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Cancer is usually caused by a tumor, and can affect any part of the body: the brain, breasts, tongue, lungs, prostates (mostly in men), and even bones! During the second week of October, SIS raised over $1,600 to help breast cancer patients keep up the fight against one of the world’s greatest threats to humanity. Although you may be familiar with the outward signs of breast cancer, have you ever wondered what goes on inside your body during this physical and emotional crisis? When you look at breast cancer with a scientific perspective, the event is completely different.

Breast cancer is malignant, which means that it is harmful to the body. It is also metastatic, which means it spreads to other parts of your body. This usually makes this type of growth (tumor) hard to keep under control, since it is always in another part of your body. And because it is hard to control, treatment is almost always expensive. A new vaccine that is developing to help eliminate the threat of breast cancer, Kadcyla, is extremely expensive, about $140,000 per patient. As quoted from The Telegraph: “Its estimated price tag  . . . easily makes it the most expensive drug for advanced breast cancer that has been submitted to Nice in recent years.” With a cost higher than what is required to buy a mobile home, Kadcyla requires about a year with a good paying job to provide the cash needed for one patient.

However breast cancer does not only attack patients’ bank accounts, it is slowly eating at their health, as well.  It goes undetected, and hits our body with a big bang as it progresses through its later stages. Also, there are a couple types of this cancer, some of them being invasive. It takes an expert to identify the different symptoms and link them to their correct diagnosis. When someone identifies a tumor (tissue that is growing at an abnormal rate) on their breast, they know they probably have a malignant cancer cell.

Breast cancer staging is a very complicated process that requires statistics to be right on the dot. The American Joint Committee on Cancer (AJCC) uses a special system called the TNM system, which identifies if the cancer is primary tumor (T),  nearby lymph nodes (N, based on looking through microscope), or metastasis (M). When using the TNM system, there are different categories to establish what stage the cancer is in, plus how much it has developed. For example, when using the T classification, T0 (zero) states there is no evidence of a primary tumor. Or, TX means the primary tumor cannot be assessed. After T0, however, the categories assess the size (diameter) of the tumor: T1 states the tumor is less than 2cm across. T2 states the tumor is between 2cm and 5cm across, and T3 states it has grown to more than 5cm across. There is also a T4, which means that a tumor of any size is growing into the chest or skin, which also include inflammatory breast cancer.

A similar staging system is used to identify nearby lymph nodes. This process is more difficult to understand. NX is used when the nearby lymph nodes cannot be assessed. N0 still resembles no present nearby lymph nodes. N1, N2, and N3 tell us the number of lymph nodes on the breast. For example, N1 states cancer has spread to 1 to 3 underarm lymph nodes, and has different sections to specify the specific phase of the cancer (N1mi, N1a, N1b, etc.). N2 states cancer has spread to 4 to 9 underarm lymph nodes, meaning the cancer is in its later stages. The staging is, as stated earlier, very similar to tumor staging.

Our final staging system is assessing metastasis (M). This system is completely different than the former two topics, and is extremely easy to understand. Metastasis assesses where the cancer has spread in relation to other organs, external body parts, etc.. MX means the distant spread metastasis cannot be assessed. M0 resembles no x-ray metastasis was shown or found. cM0(i +) basically means that the cancer has spread, but barely enough to be a major threat. M1 means the cancer has spread to different organs.

The staging process includes more steps, categories, and sections which are too complicated to explain. This shows the vigorous process which is diagnosing and identifying breast cancer. As you may of learned from metastasis, breast cancer isn’t limited to one specific area. Only the most advanced pathologists are able to flawlessly diagnose the specific type of breast cancer in the patient.

This deadly disease is not restricted to inside the breast.  For example, Paget Disease is an illness that affects the skin of the nipple. Someone who has knowledge on how to identify these illnesses will know what the patient is suffering from, depending on where the source of the symptoms is located. As quoted from MedicineNet.com, “Symptoms and signs of Paget Disease of the breast can be similar to those of benign skin conditions and can include itching, redness, thickness, or crustiness of the skin.” These symptoms help identify what cancer is intact; sometimes, the symptoms actually increase the chance of survival, assuming scientists know treatments that “numb” the effects. However, symptoms don’t usually show until Week 2 of the illness, making it hard to stop the illness by its late stages.

Although breast cancer may seem like an unstoppable killing machine, we have made advancements in treatments and are very close to a complete breakthrough that could save the lives of millions. And women aren’t the only victims; every year, approximately 1,700 US men contract the illnesses, making the illness deadly for both genders. Scientists have come up with tests to detect precancerous cells, and even potential vaccines. This proves there is still hope, and that we still have a shot to win the biological fight that we are stuck in. As stated above, we potentially have Kadcyla, but we also have other lab tests progressing through the requirements, such as Fenretinide (a retinoid, which is a drug that is related to Vitamin A). With improving technology and increasing theory on the topic, we are starting to get a lead on what is our enemy: breast cancer.

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The Heart of Breast Cancer