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Breast Cancer

BreastBreast cancer is a malignant or potentially life-threatening tumor. (Read about "Cancer: What It Is") Not all breast lumps or tumors are malignant. (Read about "Breast Diseases and Conditions") According to the National Women's Health Information Center, most lumps are benign or non-cancerous, although any unusual lump should always be examined by a doctor.

Men can develop breast cancer; however, the disease by far occurs more in women. In fact, it's estimated by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that one in eight women will develop breast cancer in their lifetime.

Health Assessment Our BREAST CANCER RISK ASSESSMENT can help you learn more about your own risk factors, based on guidelines from the National Cancer Institute.

Simply click on the link for the form. Fill it out online to learn more about how specific things affect the risk of developing breast cancer. When you're done, you may want to print it out and share it with your doctor. Any information you enter will NOT be saved once you close the window. This is to protect your privacy. When you're done, simply close the form window, and continue reading.

Who's at risk

The American Cancer Society (ACS) and NIH say several factors indicate a woman is at a higher risk of developing breast cancer:

Research also continues into genetic mutations (Read about "Genetics"), specifically mutations in the genes BRCA1 and BRCA2, which have been linked to an increased risk of developing both breast and ovarian cancer. (Read about "The Ovaries") NCI says that several different tests for these mutations are available, including tests that look for a known mutation in one of the genes (i.e., a mutation that has already been identified in another family member) and tests that check for all possible mutations in both genes. DNA is needed for mutation testing. Genetic counseling is generally recommended before and after any genetic test for an inherited cancer syndrome. This counseling should be performed by a healthcare professional who is experienced in cancer genetics.

Know your breasts

ACS says that evidence is lacking about the benefit of physical breast exams done by either a health professional or by yourself for breast cancer screening. But you should ask your doctor or healthcare provider what is right for you. A clinical breast examination is a breast examination performed by a doctor, physician's assistant or nurse practitioner. During this exam, the healthcare provider will talk with you about any potential symptoms, examine your breasts visually and check the condition of the skin, examine the nipples for any issues such as discharge, and then palpate or feel the deeper tissue of each breast, as well as the armpit area.

Breast self-examination is another way to discover abnormalities. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) says you should know what is normal for your breasts. If you feel any abnormalities in your breasts, or if there are any changes, see your healthcare provider as soon as possible. But don't panic; keep in mind that most lumps in the breast are not cancer, although any lump should always be examined by a qualified physician at once. (Read about "Self-Examination")


ACOG says mammograms can detect breast abnormalities before you can actually feel them. Although different organizations have offered different advice on the exact timetables for mammograms, mammograms remain one of the most effective tools for detecting breast cancer in its earliest, most treatable stage.

There are different ways mammograms are used:

Currently, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) says the strongest evidence of mammography's benefit and reduced mortality from breast cancer is among women ages 50-74. USPSTF also says there are some risks associated with mammography (false-positive results that lead to unnecessary biopsies or surgery), but that these risks lessen as women get older. ACS recommends women be given the option of yearly mammograms starting at age 40 and women age 45 to 54 should get mammograms every year. At age 55, ACS recommends that women can switch to every other year if they choose. Screenings are recommended to continue as long as a woman is in good health and has a continued life expectancy of at least 10 years. Special circumstances - such as a family history of breast cancer - may indicate a need for earlier mammograms. Each woman should discuss her personal needs with her doctor or healthcare provider.

When you go for a mammogram, you will stand in front of a special x-ray machine. (Read about "X-rays") The person who takes the x-rays, called a radiologic technologist, places your breasts (one at a time) between two plastic plates. During a mammogram, the breast is compressed, in order to produce a clear x-ray. Some women find this procedure less uncomfortable if they schedule a mammogram right after their period, when the breasts are less tender. Often, two pictures are taken of each breast - one from the side and one from above. Options include:

ACS says you shouldn't wear deodorant, cream or powder under your arms when you get a mammogram, as they can interfere with the quality of the mammogram. If you have breast implants, be sure to tell your mammography facility that you have them when you make your appointment.

Mammograms allow the doctor to have a closer look for breast lumps and changes in breast tissue. Mammograms can show small lumps or growths that a doctor or woman may not be able to feel when doing a breast exam. When reading a mammogram, doctors look for abnormalities, as well as changes from previous mammograms.

Other tests

There are other scanning tests that can be used for cancer detection.

Magnetic resonance imaging - Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) uses radio waves and strong magnets instead of x-rays. (Read about "MRI - Magnetic Resonance Imaging") The energy from the radio waves is absorbed and then released in a pattern formed by the type of body tissue and by certain diseases. A computer translates the pattern into a very detailed image. MRI can be used along with mammograms for screening women who have a high risk of developing breast cancer, or it can be used to better examine suspicious areas found by a mammogram.

Ultrasound - Ultrasound uses sound waves to outline a part of the body. (Read about "Ultrasound Imaging") Ultrasound can help distinguish between cysts (fluid-filled sacs) and solid masses. In someone with a breast tumor, it can also be used to look for enlarged lymph nodes under the arm.

Women should discuss their risks with their healthcare provider.

Diagnosis and classification

Each breast has 15 to 20 sections called lobes. Within each lobe are many smaller lobules. Lobules end in dozens of tiny bulbs that can produce milk. The lobes, lobules and bulbs are all linked by thin tubes called ducts. These ducts lead to the nipple in the center of a dark area of skin called the areola. Abnormal cell growth can start in any of these areas.

There are other, less common diagnoses. Inflammatory breast cancer is a rare type of late-stage breast cancer in which the breast looks red and swollen because cancer cells block the lymph vessels in the skin of the breast. Symptoms of inflammatory breast cancer include a sudden increase in breast size, itching, dimpling, thickening of the skin, and the breast may feel warm to the touch. Another less common type of cancer, called Paget's disease of breast, is a slowly growing cancer that starts in the milk ducts of the nipple. Symptoms of Paget's disease of breast include a rash, inflammation, crusting or bleeding, discharge, nipple inversion. These symptoms can also indicate a benign condition, but if you have any unusual symptoms, see your doctor at once.

Tests and staging

If an abnormal area shows up on your mammogram, you may need to have more x-rays. You also may need a biopsy. A biopsy is the only way to tell for sure if cancer is present. In a biopsy, a sample of tissue can be taken for examination under a microscope, in order to determine if there is any cancer present. NCI says imaging techniques play an important role in biopsy. One type of needle biopsy, the stereotactic-guided biopsy, uses a computer and scanning devices to pinpoint the precise location of the abnormal area. A needle is then inserted into the breast and a tissue sample is obtained. (Read about "Biopsy")

It is important to know the stage in order to plan the best treatment. The following stages are used, according to NCI:


If cancer is present, treatment will depend on where the cancer is and whether it is invasive or has spread to nearby tissue. There are two basic types of treatment for breast cancer, local and systemic. NCI says you can have one or both types of treatment.

Local treatments are used to remove or destroy breast cancer in a specific area. NCI says surgery is the main local therapy for breast cancer. Surgical options include:

During surgery, some of the lymph nodes (small bean-shaped organs that are part of the immune system; see "The Immune System" "Immune System Glossary" and "The Lymph System") may also be removed. This will be done to determine if the cancer has spread.

A doctor may recommend radiation as well, especially after breast-conserving surgery, to destroy any breast cancer cells that may remain in the area. Radiation therapy is treatment with high-energy rays or particles that destroy cancer cells. ACS says the radiation can be focused from a source outside the body on the area affected by the cancer, including the breast, chest wall, and/or underarm area. Internal radiation, or brachytherapy, is another way to deliver radiation therapy. In this therapy, radioactive seeds or pellets are placed directly into the breast tissue next to the cancer. You should discuss all the options with your doctor and consider obtaining a second opinion before making a final decision.

Systemic treatments affect cells throughout the body. Systemic treatments can be used to shrink a tumor before local therapy, they can be used after other treatments to prevent reoccurrence or they can be used to treat cancer that has spread. Examples of systemic therapy include chemotherapy, hormonal therapy and biological therapy. (Read about "Cancer Treatments") Chemotherapy for breast cancer is usually a combination of drugs, according to NCI. The drugs may be given in a pill or by injection. Biological therapy is a treatment designed to enhance the body's natural defenses against cancer.

Hormonal therapy may be used if tests show that hormones are helping the cancer to grow. An estrogen receptor, found on some cancer cells, is a protein to which estrogen binds. Cancer cells with this protein are considered ER-positive, and breast cancer cells that are ER-positive require the hormone estrogen to grow. These cancer cells will usually respond to hormone (antiestrogen) therapy that blocks these receptor sites. Selective estrogen receptor modulators (such as tamoxifen and raloxifene) are examples of a class of drugs that help prevent estrogen from binding to these receptors. Aromatase inhibitors (such as anastrozole and letrozole) are examples of classes of drugs that can block the production of estrogen. Conversely, breast cancer cells that do not have a protein or receptor molecule, to which estrogen will attach, are called ER-negative cells. These cells do not need the hormone estrogen to grow and usually do not respond to antiestrogen therapy. Hormonal therapy deprives the cancer cells of estrogen. Examples include surgery to remove the ovaries, and drugs. NCI says some drugs can reduce the risk of breast cancer, but also have potentially serious side effects such as endometrial cancer and blood clots in major veins. (Read about "Uterine Cancer" "Deep Vein Thrombosis")

There are also targeted drugs, which attack specific abnormalities within cancer cells. Some of these drugs, such as trastuzumab, target a protein called HER2 that can help breast cancer cells grow. Another targeted drug, bevacizumab, inhibits the growth of new blood vessels, which may fuel cancer cells.

Someone with breast cancer may also develop a condition called hypercalcemia - too much calcium in the blood - which in turn can cause loss of appetite, nausea, thirst, fatigue, muscle weakness, restlessness and confusion. This can often require medication and rehydration. (Read about "Hypercalcemia")

The type of treatment will vary for every woman. It will depend on many factors including, but not limited to:

One of the most important considerations in treatment is the size of the tumor and if the cancer has spread - once again a good reason for early detection.

More Cancer Information:

    Breast Cancer Glossary

    Breast Self-examination

    Cancer Check-ups

    Cancer Support

    Cancer Treatments

    Reduce Cancer Risks

    Cancer Glossary

For a list of individual types of cancer, see Cancer: What It Is

Related Information:

    Woman's Health Terms Glossary

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