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Breast Cancer Pathophysiology

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breast cancer pathophysiology

People know diseases primarily from their outward effects on health and the body, and by the mortality rates that are associated with those conditions. But few know the details of what is really happening on the inside when diseases are in the process of developing over time. The medical science that looks at these unfolding internal processes is called pathophysiology.

What is Pathophysiology?
The field of pathophysiology is normally described as a combination of two separate specialties – pathology and physiology. Physiology involves the study of the body and its various functions, while pathology is the study of disease and the way it effects the body. Putting these two together, what we are left with is a practice that describes the specific changes that occur in the functions and processes of the body as a result of the presence of disease.

While this description is certainly accurate, it actually leaves out another field of study which is relevant to pathophysiology, and that is history. Ultimately, pathophysiological study looks closely at and describes the history of what happens in the human body when disease agents are present. It may not be the normal custom to think of a medical science practice as involving history, but research into breast cancer is all dedicated to uncovering more details about the historical development of this disease in the human body, in order to develop treatments and prevention strategies that will work better because they can be precisely and appropriately applied based on new-found knowledge about what is really going on in the body of a woman afflicted by breast cancer.

The Development of Breast Cancer
Looking at the larger picture, breast cancer is the end result of an unfolding confluence of various environmental, hereditary, and personal factors. From the perspective of pathophysiology, some of the immediate, internal reasons why breast cancer suddenly appears when and where it does include:

  • Lesions and other damage to DNA, frequently caused by genetic mutations
  • Failure of the immune system to remove cancerous cells as it has done in the past
  • Malfunctioning growth factor action and signaling in the process of breast cell division and growth
  • Inherited defects in genes that normally repair DNA damage, including damage which might lead to breast cancer

As can be seen, the pathophysiology of breast cancer starts in normal breast cells, which suddenly become cancerous as a result of a breakdown in the organized way that cells grow, divide, and repair themselves. Something causes a deterioration in a process that had worked efficiently in the past, and cancer is a side effect of this deep cellular dysfunction.

The Basic Types of Breast Cancer
Breast cancers are classified as either invasive of non-invasive (in situ), and there are two types of the disease that fall under each category. The two forms of breast cancer that carry the invasive moniker are infiltrating ductal carcinoma and infiltrating lobular carcinoma; while in the non-invasive classification we have ductal carcinoma in situ and lobular carcinoma in situ.

The breast ducts connect to the lobules, where breast milk is actually produced, and all breast cancers begin in one of these two locations. The key difference in cancers of the breast is not related to location, however; rather, it is based on whether or not the breast cancer tumor can penetrate the walls of the area it occupies and move into the surrounding fatty breast tissue, the lymph node system, and other parts of the body. When breast cancer tumors grow so aggressively they actually break out well past their point of origin and spread to new areas, this is called metastasis.

The Five Stages of Breast Cancer
Five different stages of breast cancer may manifest as the disease develops – or ceases developing, in the case of in situ cancers. These stages are:

  • Stage 0 – noninvasive carcinomas occupy their locations of origin without spreading beyond this point
  • Stage I – the tumor is no larger than two centimeters, and cancer cells are confined to the breast
  • Stage II – a tumor has started to spread to the lymph nodes or, the tumor has exceeded five centimeters in size
  • Stage III – the tumor has exceeded five centimeters and has spread into the lymph nodes in a more extensive way than in stage II
  • Stage IV – the cancer has metastasized and spread to other regions of the body

It is important that breast cancer sufferers be diagnosed as early as possible, if they have an invasive type of the disease. Smaller tumors and confinement to smaller areas makes breast cancer much easier to treat using the traditional methods of surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, and hormone therapy.

Pathophysiology and Treatment

Understanding breast cancer means understanding the way normal breast cell formation and function becomes disrupted and misdirected, until good cells go bad and cancer is the result. Pathophysiological analysis will ultimately allow researchers to develop sensible, targeted treatments that can turn the tables on cancer cells, disrupting and misdirecting their processes of development so they are no longer able to do damage in the body. Without the deeper level of understanding provided by pathophysiological study, survival rates for breast cancer would not be nearly as good as they are now.

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