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Understanding Breast Cancer Risks, Prevention, and Treatment Choices

Jonathan Vellinga, MD -

Breast cancer, the second most common cancer in women, is a complex disease. The more you know about it, the healthier you can be. Whether you’re actively fighting breast cancer or just want to protect yourself and those you love, information is power.


Getting a breast cancer diagnosis can be an emotional and complicated time. At the Temecula Center for Integrative Medicine (TCIM), we understand those feelings. Our highly trained professionals, including our new provider Maggie Gama, MD, will help you every step of the way. Dr. Gama has a lifelong interest in health and healing. As a compassionate diagnostician, she can explain the many functional and integrative treatments available to you. Dr. Gama has an in-depth knowledge of clinical pathology, oncology, and functional medicine. This gives her a unique edge in treating difficult and challenging cases. Her goal for each patient is to restore and maintain their health, as well as empower them to develop a healthier lifestyle. Along with her respect for the important role of western medicine, Dr. Gama believes strongly in the synergy of other medical disciplines and holistic treatments to help restore mind, body, and spirit.


Understanding Breast Cancer Risks, Prevention, and Treatment Choices

What is breast cancer?


Breast cancer develops in the cells of the breasts, and it can occur in both women and men. Increasing patient awareness about breast cancer has improved screening and treatment rates, which is helping to provide a steadily declining death rate from breast cancer (1).


It begins when breast cells begin to grow abnormally and divide faster than healthy cells. As cells accumulate, they can form a lump or mass in the breast that can become cancerous. Breast cancer may also metastasize through the lymph system to other parts of the body (1).


Breast cancer is caused by a complex interaction of a patient’s genetics, hormone balance, lifestyle, and environmental exposures. About 10% of breast cancers are caused by inherited gene mutations such as BRCA1 or BRCA2, which substantially increase breast cancer risk (1).


Most women with breast cancer have no known risk factors, other than being female. Some risk factors you cannot change, but there are several important ones that you can change (1).


Risk factors you cannot change include:

  • Increasing age

  • Personal history of breast cancer or breast conditions

  • Family history of breast cancer in mother, sister, or daughter

  • Beginning menstruation before age 12

  • Beginning menopause at an older age

  • Never being pregnant

  • Having your first child after age 30

Risk factors you can control and moderate include:

  • Being seriously overweight

  • Not getting regular physical activity

  • Drinking alcohol

  • Having radiation exposure to the chest area

  • Not breastfeeding

  • Taking hormone therapy to treat menopause symptoms

  • Taking hormonal birth control methods

  • Having a long-term imbalance of hormones, especially estrogen


What are the symptoms of breast cancer?


  • A lump or thickening in a breast or underarm area that does not feel like surrounding tissue

  • Changes in the shape, size, or appearance of a breast, including the skin over the breast

  • Peeling, crusting, flaking of the nipple or breast skin

  • An inverted nipple that’s new


How is breast cancer diagnosed?


  • Both breasts and the lymph nodes in your armpits are examined for lumps.

  • Mammograms are used to screen for breast cancer and provide further evaluation of abnormal tissue.

  • Ultrasound provides more detailed images of deep breast tissue.

  • Tissue extracted during a biopsy is analyzed for cancer cells, their type and grade, and whether cells have hormone receptors, which help determine treatment options.

  • MRI can provide detailed images of the breast interior by using an injection of dye.

  • A blood test can identify BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes.


What are the standard treatments for breast cancer?


Treatment is determined by the type, stage, grade, size, and hormone sensitivity of the cancer. Conventional or standard treatments for breast cancer may include (1):


  • Surgery to remove the cancerous tumor (lumpectomy), the entire breast (mastectomy), or lymph nodes to determine if cancer has metastasized (sentinel node biopsy).

  • Chemotherapy, which may be used before surgery to shrink a tumor or after surgery to reduce the risk of recurring cancer, uses drugs to destroy aggressive cancer cells and decrease symptoms.

  • Hormone therapy can block the hormones that certain cancers depend on (estrogen receptor positive or progesterone receptor positive breast cancers). It can be used before or after surgery to reduce the chance of cancer recurring. If cancer has metastasized, it can help shrink and control it.