Breast Cancer: Overview
What is breast cancer?
Cancer is made of changed cells that grow out of control. The
changed (abnormal) cells often grow to form a lump or mass called a tumor. Cancer
cells can also grow into (invade) nearby areas. And they can spread to other parts
of the body. This is called metastasis.
The breast is made of fatty tissue, ducts, and lobules. The
lobules make breast milk. The ducts are thin tubes that carry it to the nipple.
Ductal carcinoma is the most common type of breast cancer. It starts in the ducts of
the breast. Cancer can start in other parts of the breast, too.
Who is at risk for breast cancer?
A risk factor is anything that may increase your chance of having
a disease. The exact cause of someone’s cancer may not be known. But risk factors
can make it more likely for a person to have cancer. Some risk factors may not be in
your control. But others may be things you can change.
The risk factors for breast cancer include:
Past history of breast cancer
Certain breast changes that are not cancer
Starting your period when you’re young or stopping at a late
Certain gene changes passed in families
Having many family members with breast, ovary, uterus,
colon, or prostate cancer
Radiation treatment to your chest when you were young
Never having children
First pregnancy at a late age
Using hormone therapy for menopause changes
Not being physically active
Talk with your healthcare provider about your risk factors for
breast cancer and what you can do about them.
Can breast cancer be prevented?
There is no sure way to prevent breast cancer. Some risk factors
can be controlled to help reduce risk. Women at high risk may want to take certain
medicines or even have surgery to remove their breasts to help keep from getting
Are there screening tests for breast cancer?
Regular testing to look for breast cancer is the best way to
find it when it’s small and before it has spread. A breast X-ray called a
mammogram is used to look for breast cancer. It can show cancer before tumors
are big enough to feel or cause problems. Women at high risk may get another
test, called an MRI, along with their mammograms.
What are the symptoms of breast cancer?
You can have breast cancer with no symptoms. But it’s good to know
how your breasts normally look and feel so you can spot any changes and see a
doctor. Common signs of breast cancer include:
A lump you can feel
Skin on your breast that is red, puckered, scaly, or itchy
Dimples in your breast that look like the outside of an
Change in the size or shape of your breast
Nipple turns inward
Fluid coming out of your nipple that’s not breast milk
Many of these may be caused by other health problems. But it is
important to see a healthcare provider if you have these symptoms. Only a healthcare
provider can tell if you have cancer.
How is breast cancer diagnosed?
The most common way to find breast cancer is when a woman finds a
lump in her breast or armpit. A doctor should be seen right away. The doctor will
look at the breasts and feel the lump. Ultrasound may be used to see if the lump is
solid or filled with fluid. An X-ray of the breast is often done. This is called a
A biopsy is the only way to know if a lump or change is cancer.
Small pieces of tissue are taken out and checked for cancer cells. Many times a
hollow needle is used to take out the bits of tissue. The samples are sent to a lab.
Your results will come back in about 1 week.
After a diagnosis of breast cancer, you may have other tests.
These help your healthcare providers learn more about the cancer. They can help
determine the stage of the cancer. The stage is how much and how far the cancer has
spread (metastasized) in your body. It is one of the most important things to know
when deciding how to treat the cancer.
Once your cancer is staged, your healthcare provider will talk
with you about what the stage means for your treatment. Be sure to ask your
healthcare provider to explain the stage of your cancer to you in a way you can
How is breast cancer treated?
Your treatment choices depend on the type of breast cancer you
have, test results, and the stage of the cancer. Other things to think about are if
the cancer can be removed with surgery and your overall health. The goal of
treatment may be to cure you, control the cancer, or help ease problems caused by
the cancer. Talk with your healthcare team about your treatment choices, the goals
of treatment, and what the risks and side effects may be.
Types of treatment for cancer are either local or systemic. Local
treatments remove, destroy, or control cancer cells in one area. Surgery and
radiation are local treatments. Systemic treatment is used to destroy or control
cancer cells that may have traveled around your body. When taken by pill or
injection, chemotherapy is a systemic treatment. Most women with breast cancer will
be treated with surgery. Some will also need radiation, chemo, targeted therapy, or
You may have just one treatment or a combination of treatments.
Talk with your healthcare providers about your treatment options.
Make a list of questions. Think about the benefits and possible side effects of each
option. Talk about your concerns with your healthcare provider before making a
What are treatment side effects?
Cancer treatment such as chemotherapy and radiation can damage
normal cells. This causes side effects such as hair loss, mouth sores, and vomiting.
Talk with your healthcare provider about side effects you might have and ways to
manage them. There may be things you can do and medicines you can take to help
prevent or control side effects.
Coping with breast cancer
Many people feel worried, depressed, and stressed when dealing
with cancer. Getting treatment for cancer can be hard on your mind and body. Keep
talking with your healthcare team about any problems or concerns you have. Work
together to ease the effect of cancer and its symptoms on your daily life.
Here are tips:
Talk with your family or friends.
Ask your healthcare team or social worker for help.
Speak with a counselor.
Talk with a spiritual advisor, such as a minister or
Ask your healthcare team about medicines for depression or
Keep socially active.
Join a cancer support group.
Cancer treatment is also hard on the body. To help yourself stay
healthier, try to:
Eat a healthy diet, with a focus on high-protein foods.
Drink plenty of water, fruit juices, and other liquids.
Keep physically active.
Rest as much as needed.
Talk with your healthcare team about ways to manage
treatment side effects.
Take your medicines as directed by your team.
When should I call my healthcare provider?
Your healthcare provider will talk with you about when to call.
You may be told to call if you have any of the below:
New symptoms or symptoms that get worse
Signs of an infection, such as a fever
Side effects of treatment that affect your daily function or
don’t get better with treatment
Ask your healthcare provider what signs to watch for, and when to
call. Know how to get help after office hours and on weekends and holidays.
Key points about breast cancer
Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare
Know the reason for your visit and what you want to
Before your visit, write down questions you want
Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and
remember what your provider tells you.
At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and
any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions
your provider gives you.
Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed, and how
it will help you. Also know what the side effects are.
Ask if your condition can be treated in other ways.
Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the
results could mean.
Know what to expect if you do not take the medicine or have
the test or procedure.
If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date,
time, and purpose for that visit.
Know how you can contact your provider if you have