About Breast Cancer
What is breast cancer?
Breast cancer is a malignant tumor that starts from cells of the breast. A malignant tumor is a group of cancer cells that may grow into surrounding tissues or spread to distant areas of the body. The disease occurs primarily in women, but some men are affected too.
The key to beating breast cancer is early detection. Women should perform monthly self-breast exams, have regular clinical breast examinations and schedule a yearly mammogram. Numerous studies prove that early detection is the most vital component in the successful treatment of breast cancer. Annual screening mammograms starting at age 40 play a central part in early detection because they can detect subtle changes in the breast before they can be felt.
Signs and symptoms of breast cancer may include:
- A breast lump or thickening that feels different from the surrounding tissue
- Spontaneous; bloody or clear discharge from the nipple
- Changes to the skin over the breast, such as dimpling
- Inverted nipple
- Peeling or flaking of the nipple skin
- Redness or pitting of the skin over your breast, like the skin of an orange
If you find a lump or other change in your breast — even if a recent mammogram was normal — make an appointment with your doctor immediately.
Risk factors & prevention
A risk factor is anything that makes it more likely you'll get a particular disease. But having one or even several risk factors doesn't necessarily mean you'll develop cancer – most women with breast cancer have no known risk factors other than simply being women.
Things that may increase your risk of breast cancer include:
- Being female. Women are much more likely than men are to develop breast cancer.
- Increasing age. Your risk of breast cancer increases as you age.
- A personal history of breast cancer. If you've had breast cancer in one breast, you have an increased risk of developing cancer in the other breast.
- A family history of breast cancer. If you have a mother, sister or daughter with breast cancer, you have a greater chance of being diagnosed with breast cancer. Still, the majority of people diagnosed with breast cancer have no family history of the disease.
- Inherited genes that increase cancer risk. Certain gene mutations such as BRCA1 and BRCA2 greatly increase the risk of breast cancer. Doctors estimate this accounts for 5-10% of breast cancer cases.
- Radiation exposure. If you received radiation treatments to your chest as a child or young adult, you're more likely to develop breast cancer later in life.
- Obesity. Being overweight or obese increases your risk of breast cancer.
- Beginning your period at a younger age. Beginning your period before age 12 increases your risk of breast cancer.
- Beginning menopause at an older age. If you began menopause after age 55, you're more likely to develop breast cancer.
- Having your first child at an older age. Women who give birth to their first child after age 35 may have an increased risk of breast cancer.
- Postmenopausal hormone therapy. Women who take hormone therapy medications that combine estrogen and progesterone to treat the signs and symptoms of menopause have an increased risk of breast cancer.
- Drinking alcohol. Drinking alcohol may increase the risk of breast cancer.
Unfortunately, breast cancer cannot be prevented. But there are things all women can do that might reduce their risk and help increase the odds that if cancer does occur, it is found at an early, more treatable stage. First, follow the Guidelines for Early Detection. If you exercise regularly, drink alcohol in moderation and maintain a healthy body weight you can also decrease your risk for breast cancer.
If you have a strong family history or personal history of breast cancer, speak to your physician about when to start mammograms, additional screening tools such as breast MRI and if genetic counseling could benefit you. Genetic risk assessment and counseling is also available at Carolinas Medical Center by calling 704-355-3159. The National Cancer Institute also offers a tool to assess risk online at www.cancer.gov/bcrisktool/.
Questions for your physician
- Do you think I should be worried about breast cancer?
- What puts me at risk for breast cancer?
- How often should I get a mammogram?
- I heard there are different types of mammograms. Can you explain them to me?
- Are there other things I can do to reduce my risk of breast cancer?
- I noticed a change in my breast. (Describe it.) Should I be worried about breast cancer because of this change? What should we do to watch it over time?
- What are the benefits of menopausal hormone therapy (hormone replacement therapy) for me? What are the risks? Do the benefits outweigh the risks?
- No one in my family has had breast cancer. Does that mean I won't get it?
- Here is my family history. What are the chances that a gene alteration is involved in the breast cancer that has been in my family? Do I need genetic counseling?