Understanding the breast is critical to understanding cancer. But you also have to understand two supporting organs, the ovaries and adrenal glands, that help choreograph its behavior. These organs and their resulting hormones come into play in our current understanding of breast cancer and its treatment.
The adrenal glands are two glands that sit on top of your kidneys and are instrumental to producing and regulating hormones necessary for many of your body’s functions. They are made up of two distinct parts: the adrenal cortex and the adrenal medulla. The adrenal cortex, the outer part, is responsible for making hormones that are critical to life, such as cortisol (which helps regulate metabolism) and aldosterone (which helps control blood pressure). The adrenal medulla, the inner part, produces nonessential hormones, such as adrenaline (which helps your body react to stress).
The ovaries produce the key hormones (estrogen and progesterone) needed to be ready for a pregnancy each month. This monthly process also affects the breast, resulting in what is for many woman a familiar cyclical pattern of swelling, nodularity, pain, and tenderness. This pattern gives the breast ample opportunity for minor changes to occur, resulting in many of the common benign problems that women frequently experience.
With menopause, the ovaries go through a shift. They change from making hormones to making the precursors of hormones. This is done by the stroma, the background tissue in which eggs are embedded in the ovaries. As a woman enters menopause, the stroma begin producing testosterone and androstenedione, which are then turned into estrogen and progesterone in other organs like the breasts, bones, liver, and brain. Testosterone, of course, is a male hormone. But don’t panic. Much of a woman’s testosterone and androstenedione is converted to estrone by throughout the body by an enzyme called aromatase.
What all this means is that the ovaries have more than one function. Reproduction is their most dramatic task, but it isn’t the only one. These organs have as much to do with the maintenance of the woman’s own life as they do with her role in bringing other lives into the world.