The Chemist: What is Breast Cancer?
Hey! Since it’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we decided to focus on breast cancer from the perspectives of our own fields. My grandma (pictured below) was a Breast Cancer survivor, so October is always a somber month for me. Even though she beat it, it still was hard watching someone I love go through something like that, which is why awareness is so important. In one way or another we all have been affected by cancer and raising awareness helps build support for those going through a hard time and financially supporting the cause helps with the research that goes behind it for early detection and treatment.
So here’s some science:
Cancer happens because there is an interaction between an external factor and a genetically disposed host. Normally, cells divide as needed, attach to other cells, stay in tissues, die when they aren’t needed (programmed cell death), but cells can be cancerous when they can’t perform these normal functions.
Before programmed cell death, cells are protected by various proteins and pathways and sometimes these pathways are mutated such that they are always “on” and the cells can’t die when it’s appropriate. This is one of the steps that causes cancer.
I won’t go into too much detail about which specific proteins and genes play a role in this process because that’s not the focus of my post. I’m just giving a general overview for my non-STEM, non-bio readers.
Let’s talk about different kinds of mutations.
First, let’s be clear, some changes in DNA are inherited and others are acquired. If they are inherited, that means when you were born, there were already some mutations in your DNA that can increase your risk for certain cancers. If they are acquired, as with a lot of breast cancer cases, that means that during your life there’s a mutation that occurs in your breast tissue.
Here’s a little background on two types of genes and their mutations.
Our bodies have genes that help our cells grow normally, called proto-oncogenes. If these genes become mutated or there are too many copies of it, they go rogue (now called oncogenes), and cause cells to grow out of control which starts a chain reaction for other cells.
Acquired Gene Mutation: There is still a lot to be learned about the factors that cause oncogenes, but some may be caused by exposure to radiation or cancer-causing chemicals. A test that can be done is to have your doctor look for copies of the HER2 oncogene. This grows and spreads very quickly, but early detection with the right drugs can make the difference.
Another type of gene that we have in our bodies is called a tumor suppressor gene. This gene regulates cell division, repairs DNA, and tells cells when it’s time to die. If these genes aren’t fully operational cells can grow out control, make more cells that do the same thing, and then not die when they’re supposed to leading to cancer.
Inherited Gene Mutation: I think the most common/well known genes when it comes to breast cancer are the BRCA genes (BRCA 1 and BRCA 2). These are tumor suppressors with mutations, that can be passed on from parent to child, that are no longer able to stop abnormal cell growth and have a very high chance of causing cancer. Genetic testing is a way to see if you're already predisposed to this kind of mutation.
There’s definitely more to the cancer story than I’ve mentioned here, but hopefully this gave you an idea of what is happening in your body to cause it.
Long story short: Early screening and prevention methods like proper diet and exercise can help detect and treat breast cancer before it’s too late. Genetic testing, frequent self-checks, mammograms, etc. are all important in catching this disease early which can only benefit you in the long run.
If you have any more questions or concerns, visit https://www.cancer.org/cancer/breast-cancer/! Or have an open and honest conversation with your oncologist. Either way the more you know, the better.