Breast cancer is a disease characterized by an abnormal growth in the breast or chest. This abnormal growth, if left unchecked, can metastasize (spread) to other parts of the body.
- About one-third of all diagnosed cancers in women are cancers of the breast
- The average 10-year survival rate for people with breast cancer is 83 percent
- Medical advances over the past several decades have steadily increased survival rates for breast cancer patients
The purpose of this page is to answer some of the most frequently asked questions about breast cancer. You’ll find a list of references and resources for more information following the FAQs.
What are the symptoms of breast cancer?
Breast cancer symptoms include the following:
- Changes in the appearance of breast skin. Darkening or thickening of the skin are common signs of breast cancer. The skin will often appear bumpy or scaly.
- Nipples turning inward. Breast cancer may cause the nipples to become flat or inverted.
- Change in size and shape of the breast. Swelling of the breast, ridges, or pitting (dimpling) are often observed with breast cancer.
- Breast or nipple pain or irritation. A rash around the nipple, around the entire breast, or swelling of the nipple can signal breast cancer.
- Nipple discharge. Discharge that isn’t breast milk can be a sign of breast cancer.
- Finding a lump in your breast. This is the most common symptom found during a breast self-exam.
- Pain in your breast or armpit.
- Swelling in your armpit or your collarbone.
Note that mammograms often reveal the early stages of breast cancer before any symptoms appear. Regular self-exams and following your physician’s recommendations for breast cancer screening should always be a part of your self-care regimen.
When should I see a doctor about breast cancer?
Beyond the symptoms given above, there are other signs that should lead you to consult a physician without delay:
- One or both breasts develop a lump. Breast cancer lumps often appear in just one breast. Here again, self-exams can detect a problem before any symptoms present themselves.
- There is persistent pain. Pain in the breast during your period or before is normal, but if it persists, then let your doctor know.
- There are swollen lymph glands in your armpits. Swollen lymph nodes anywhere are a sign of infection. A swollen lymph gland in your armpit can indicate a problem in your breast.
What are the medical tests for breast cancer?
Here are the five most common tests for breast cancer:
- Breast exam. A breast exam is similar to the self-examination you should be doing at home. The doctor will check your breasts and the lymph nodes associated with them.
- Mammogram. This is an x-ray of the breast. It can detect breast cancer in the early stages.
- Breast ultrasound. Ultrasounds of the breast use sound waves to construct images of the internal structures of the breast. Ultrasounds are normally used to probe abnormalities found during a mammogram, not to replace the need for a mammogram.
- Breast MRI. This test is typically used to get more information about an already-diagnosed cancer. The MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) produces detailed images. This test may also be ordered for someone who is at high risk of breast cancer, but has not been diagnosed.
- Breast biopsy. If a lump is discovered in the breast, the next step is usually a biopsy — the removal of cells or fluid from a lump to check for cancer. Not all lumps are malignant (cancerous). Many are benign and pose no immediate danger.
Can benign lumps in the breast become cancerous?
Benign lumps in the breast are often non-threatening cysts or fibroadenomas. Only one in twelve breast lumps are cancerous. Benign lumps rarely become cancerous, but they can compress other structures in the body (blood vessels or lymph nodes, for instance). However, you should never assume a lump is not a threat. If you find something that doesn’t feel right in your breast, call your doctor to schedule an examination.
How do you check yourself for breast cancer?
Breast self-exams (BSE) are important for the early detection of breast cancer. They can be done in the shower, in front of a mirror, or even lying down. Look for changes in the shape, size, and texture of the breast, dimples in the skin, or changes in the nipples. Be alert for changes. If you find a lump, get it evaluated by your physician. Here’s an excellent resource for learning how to do a breast self-exam: BSE.
How often should I do a breast self-exam?
You should examine your breasts via BSE once per month at a minimum. It is important to become aware of how your breast feels. That will help you instantly recognize any changes. Take note: most lumps in the breast are not cancerous. A lump in the breast isn’t a sure sign of breast cancer. Don’t panic if you find an abnormality, but definitely do report that finding to your physician.
Who gets breast cancer?
While it’s impossible to predict who will get breast cancer, here’s are some of the factors that can increase the odds:
- Women are more likely to develop breast cancer. Only one percent of all new cases are in men.
- A family history of breast cancer increases the odds. The risk is doubled for those who have a first-degree relative (mother, sister, daughter) diagnosed with breast cancer.
- Having menopause later in life. Women are older than 55 when they enter menopause are more at risk of developing breast cancer due to prolonged exposure to estrogen and progesterone.
- Getting your period at a younger age. If menstruation began before the age of 12, you’re at a higher risk of breast cancer. The reason is the same as above — prolonged exposure to certain hormones.
- Having your first child after the age of 30 or never giving birth may increase your risk of breast cancer. Your first full-term pregnancy matures breast cells and makes them less susceptible to breast cancer.
- Genetics influence the risk of breast cancer. Up to ten percent of cases are thought to be hereditary.
- A personal history of breast cancer increases your risk of being afflicted again.
- Obesity increases the risk of breast cancer.
- Other factors include drinking alcohol, having dense breasts, not exercising, and smoking.
This is not a complete list. For more information, see breastcancer.org.
Can breast cancer be cured? How is it treated?
Early stage breast cancer can be cured, typically by surgery to remove the cancerous tissue. Once the disease has spread to other parts of the body, treatment becomes more difficult.
There are two main types of breast surgery:
- A lumpectomy removes the tumor and some of the tissue around it
- A mastectomy removes the whole breast with the tumor
Chemotherapy and radiation treatments usually supplement surgery to make sure the disease has been eradicated.
How can I prevent breast cancer?
There’s no way to completely eliminate the risk of breast cancer, but there are steps you can take to lower the risk. Primarily, the best way to stay healthy is to be healthy. Eat wholesome foods, avoid smoking and excessive drinking, get regular exercise — all the things you already know to do.
If you’re overweight, get serious about losing the excess. If you’re stressed out constantly, get help and learn to manage stress. Limit your exposure to chemicals by selecting more natural cleaning agents and choosing organic foods where possible.
Take care of your body. Get physical checkups regularly. Do breast care self exams and adhere to the recommended breast screening mammogram schedule that applies to you. And see your physician immediately should you find a symptom of breast cancer.
Resources referred to in this article:
Please Note: The articles on Dr. Andy Higgins’ website are obtained from a variety of sources. While they pertain to the treatment of breast cancer, colon cancer, and other maladies, their presence here is not to help diagnose or treat any disease, but to stimulate conversation about health-related issues. All articles are cleared by an editor, but not necessarily by Doctor Higgins himself.