Breast Cancer

Breast cancer will affect 1 in 8 women during their lives. Breast self-examination and routine screening can help find and treat breast cancer in its early, most treatable stages.

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Female Breast Cancer Overview

Breast cancer is cancer that forms in the cells of the breast. It is the most common cancer diagnosed in women in the United States.

Most lumps found in the breast are not cancer. They are usually caused by fibrosis or cysts.

The most common type of breast cancer is ductal carcinoma, which begins in the cells of the ducts. Breast cancer can also begin in the cells of the lobules and in other tissues in the breast. Invasive breast cancer is breast cancer that has spread from where it began in the ducts or lobules to surrounding tissue.

Surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and hormone therapy are often used to treat breast cancer.

Substantial support for breast cancer awareness and research funding has helped improve the screening and diagnosis and advances in the treatment of breast cancer. Breast cancer survival rates have increased, and the number of deaths steadily has been declining, which is largely due to a number of factors such as earlier detection, a new personalized approach to treatment and a better understanding of the disease.

Female Breast Cancer Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of breast cancer may include:

  • A breast lump or thickening that feels different from the surrounding tissue
  • Bloody discharge from the nipple
  • Change in the size, shape or appearance of a breast
  • Changes to the skin over the breast, such as dimpling
  • A newly inverted nipple
  • Peeling, scaling or flaking of the pigmented area of skin surrounding the nipple (areola) or breast skin
  • Redness or pitting of the skin over your breast, like the skin of an orange

Female Breast Cancer Causes

The cause of breast cancer is not entirely clear. Cancer occurs when some breast cells begin growing abnormally. These cells divide more rapidly than healthy cells do and continue to accumulate, forming a lump or mass. The cells may spread (metastasize) through your breast to your lymph nodes or to other parts of your body.

Breast cancer most often begins with cells in the milk-producing ducts (invasive ductal carcinoma). Breast cancer may also begin in the glandular tissue called lobules (invasive lobular carcinoma) or in other cells or tissue within the breast.

Hormonal, lifestyle, and environmental factors may increase the risk of getting breast cancer, but it is not clear why some people who have no risk factors develop cancer and other people with risk factors never do. Breast cancer is likely caused by a complex interaction of genetic makeup and environment. An estimated 5 to 10 percent of breast cancers are linked to gene mutations passed through generations of a family, but there are several inherited mutated genes that can increase the likelihood of breast cancer. The most common are breast cancer gene 1 (BRCA1) and breast cancer gene 2 (BRCA2), both of which significantly increase the risk of both breast and ovaruan cancer.

Other factors that are associated with an increased 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 have 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 your mother, sister, or daughter was diagnosed with breast cancer, particularly at a young age, your risk of breast cancer is increased.
  • Radiation exposure. If you received radiation treatments to your chest as a child or young adult, your risk of breast cancer is increased.
  • Obesity. Being 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 at an older age, 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.
  • Having never been pregnant. Women who have never been pregnant have a greater risk of breast cancer than do women who have had one or more pregnancies.
  • 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. The risk of breast cancer decreases when women stop taking these medications.
  • Drinking alcohol. Drinking alcohol increases the risk of breast cancer.

Female Breast Cancer Diagnosis

Tests and procedures used to screen for and diagnose breast cancer include:

  • Breast exam. Your doctor will feel both of the breasts and lymph nodes in the armpit, feeling for any lumps or other abnormalities.
  • Mammogram. A mammogram is an X-ray of the breast. Mammograms are commonly used to screen for breast cancer. If an abnormality is detected on a screening mammogram, your doctor may recommend a diagnostic mammogram to further evaluate that abnormality.
  • Breast ultrasound. Ultrasound uses sound waves to produce images of structures deep within the body. Ultrasound may help distinguish between a solid mass and a fluid-filled cyst. An ultrasound is often obtained as part of the examination of a new lump.
  • Removing a sample of breast cells for testing (biopsy). Biopsy samples are sent to a laboratory for analysis where experts determine whether the cells are cancerous. A biopsy sample is also analyzed to determine the type of cells involved in the breast cancer, the aggressiveness (grade) of the cancer, and whether the cancer cells have hormone receptors or other receptors that may influence your treatment options.
  • Breast magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). An MRI machine uses a magnet and radio waves to create pictures of the interior of your breast.

Once your doctor has diagnosed your breast cancer, he or she works to establish the extent (stage) of your cancer by conducting tests such as blood tests, additional mammograms, magnetic resonance imaging of the breast, computerized tomography scan, and positron emission tomography. The cancer's stage helps determine your prognosis and the best treatment options. Breast cancer stages range from 0 to IV. Stage 0 indicates cancer that is noninvasive or contained within the milk ducts. Stage IV breast cancer, also called metastatic breast cancer, indicates cancer that has spread to other areas of the body.

Living With Female Breast Cancer

If you have or have had breast cancer, you can take steps to manage the stress that accompanies the diagnosis:

  • Learn about breast so you can make informed decisions about your care.
  • Have a schedule of follow-up tests and go to each appointment.
  • Take care of yourself so that you are ready to fight cancer. This includes eating a healthy that includes plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, exercising for at least 30 minutes most days of the week, and getting enough sleep so that you wake feeling rested.
  • Accept help and support from family and friends.
  • Talk with other cancer survivors or attend support groups.

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