In the U.S., breast cancer is the most common type of cancer in women with a one in eight chance of getting the disease. As prevalent as it is, the survival rate of breast cancer itself is high. Most breast cancer patients don’t die from the primary tumor but from the spread of cancer cells to other parts of the body, especially to vital organs. It makes sense then, that researchers are working hard to tackle the spreading and stop the cancer before it becomes a death sentence.
Breast Cancer Overview
Breast cancer starts because of a mutation in DNA that causes cells to grow out of control. Certain genes are responsible for determining the rate of cell growth, and other genes slow down cell division. When DNA mutates, it can cause changes in the genes resulting in irregular cell function: cells grow too fast, mistakes aren’t repaired, division happens too rapidly, etc. While some of these DNA irregularities are inherited, the majority are acquired, meaning the mutated DNA occurs during your life due to other factors. This can happen because of exposure to radiation or cancer-causing chemicals, but many of the acquired factors are still unknown.
How Breast Cancer Spreads
If breast cancer cells get into the blood or lymph system, they can spread to other parts of the body and cause greater damage. The chance of and speed at which other organs are affected increases as the cancer enters the lymph nodes, and the more lymph nodes that are infected, the greater the spread of cancer. When breast cancer spreads, it typically affects the liver, lungs, bones, and brain, making early detection vital and often life-saving. The chance of death from breast cancer has dropped significantly in the last thirty years to a current five-year survival rate of 90%. The mortality rate starts to increase as cancer spreads, so while the five-year survival rate of stage 2 breast cancer is close to 93%, once it spreads, that number drops to 22%. For this reason, stopping the spread of breast cancer has become a primary concern for researchers.
Stopping the Spread
Research on stopping breast cancer has had some promising developments in recent years. One such study by the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute involves restricting the amino acid asparagine to stop breast cancer from reaching other parts of the body. Asparagine plays a large role in moving breast cancer through the body. Our bodies do produce it, but it primarily comes from our diet in the form of foods like asparagus, soy, dairy, poultry, and seafood. Interestingly, little changes were made in the original breast cancer tumor, but by limiting the amount of asparagine in the diet and giving asparagine-blocking medication, researchers did see a significant decline in the spread of breast cancer throughout the body.
Another study from the journal Nature Cell Biology found that primary breast tumors can stop themselves from spreading. When breast cancer cells break away and start to spread to other parts of the body, it triggers an inflammatory response and causes the immune system to send healthy cells to find the breakaway cells and “freeze” them. Before breakaway cells have a chance to begin creating new tumors, they are in a weakened state, so the immune cells are able to force them into a permanent transition stage and prevent them from metastasizing. Researchers are working to further understand the process and hopefully find a way to mimic the freezing of breakaway cancer cells to help prevent the forming of cancerous tumors throughout the body.
If you are at higher risk for breast cancer due to family history, personal medical history, or previous cancer diagnosis, you may have questions about prevention and treatment. The Breast Center at The Woman’s Clinic can help address these and any other questions you may have. We also offer 3D mammograms. 3D technology sweeps in an arc over the breast, building images from multiple angles. When viewed in sequence, these images allow doctors to see masses and distortions associated with cancers significantly more clearly than conventional 2D mammography. Is it time for your annual mammogram? You can schedule online today!