Breast cancer is cancer that develops from breast tissue. It is the most common cancer among American women.
One in every eight women in the United States develops breast cancer. Breast cancer is the most common invasive cancer in women, and the second main cause of cancer death in women, after lung cancer.
However Breast cancer isn’t what it was 20 years ago. Survival rates are rising as screening and treatment improve. But breast cancer is still the most invasive cancer in women. Breast cancer can occur in both men and women, but it’s far more common in women.There are many types of breast cancer that differ in their capability of spreading to other body tissues. The causes of breast cancer are not yet fully known, although a number of risk factors have been identified.
Breast Cancer Symptoms
The symptoms vary from one person to the next. Knowing what your breasts normally look and feel like may help you recognize possible signs and symptoms. Signs and symptoms of breast cancer may include:
A painless lump in the breast
- Changes in breast size or shape
- Changes to the skin over the breast, such as dimpling
- Swelling in the armpit
- Nipple changes or discharge
- Redness or pitting of the skin over your breast, like the skin of an orange
Breast pain can also be a symptom of cancer, but this isn’t common
Breast cancer screening and diagnosis
With breast cancer, early detection is key. The earlier the disease is diagnosed the less it has progressed, and the better the outcome with treatment.
A screening mammogram (a type of breast X-ray) can identify the presence of cancer, often before symptoms arise. Mammograms, an X-ray of the breast, can show tumors before they get large enough to feel.
Ultrasound and MRI
A breast ultrasound can help find cysts, fluid-filled sacs that most often aren’t cancer. You might get an MRI along with a mammogram as part of your routine testing if you have a higher risk of breast cancer.
What If You Find a Lump?
First, don’t panic. Eighty percent of breast lumps aren’t cancerous. They often turn out to be harmless cysts or tissue changes related to your menstrual cycle. But let your doctor know right away if you find anything unusual in your breast. If it is cancer, the earlier it’s found, the better. And if it isn’t, testing can give you peace of mind.
The only sure way to know a lump is cancer is to do a biopsy. A breast biopsy is a test that removes tissue or sometimes fluid from the suspicious area. The removed cells are examined under a microscope and further tested to check for the presence of breast cancer. A biopsy is the only diagnostic procedure that can definitely determine if the suspicious area is cancerous.
There are three types of biopsies:
- Fine-needle aspiration
- Core-needle biopsy
- Surgical biopsy
The results will show whether it’s cancer, and if so, what type. There are several forms of breast cancer, and treatments are carefully matched to each type.
HER2-Positive Breast Cancer
In about 20% of patients, breast cancer cells have too much of a protein called HER2. This type is known as HER2-positive, and it tends to spread faster than other forms. It’s important to know whether a tumor is HER2-positive, because there are special treatments for this type of cancer.
Breast Cancer Stages
If breast cancer is the diagnosed, the next step is to figure out how big the tumor is and how much of your body it affects. This process is called staging. Doctors use stages 0-IV to describe whether cancer is only in the breast, or if it has moved into nearby lymph nodes or spread to other organs, like the lungs. Knowing the stage and type of breast cancer will help your health care team to:
- Decide the best treatment
- Know what kind of follow-up will be needed
- Determine your chance of recovery .
- Find clinical trials you may be able to join
Treatment is based on many factors, including:
- Type of breast cancer
- Stage of the cancer (staging is a tool your providers use to find out how advanced the cancer is)
- Whether the cancer is sensitive to certain hormones
- Whether the cancer overproduces the HER2/neu protein
Cancer treatments may include:
Breast Cancer Surgery
- Breast Cancer Surgery
There are many types of breast cancer surgery, from taking out the area around the lump (lumpectomy or breast-conserving surgery) to removing the entire breast (mastectomy.) Talk about the pros and cons of each with your doctor to decide what’s right for you.
- Radiation Therapy
This treatment kills cancer cells with high-energy rays. It may be used after breast cancer surgery to wipe out any cancer cells that remain near the tumor site. It might be paired with chemotherapy to treat cancer that has spread to other body parts. Side effects include fatigue and swelling or a sunburn-like feeling where you were treated.
Chemotherapy uses medicines to kill cancer cells. They’re often given by IV, but they can be taken by mouth or a shot. You might have it before surgery to shrink a large tumor or after to lower the odds of your cancer coming back. In women with advanced breast cancer, chemo can help control the cancer’s growth. Side effects may include hair loss, nausea, fatigue, and a higher risk of infection.
- Hormone Therapy
This is for women with ER-positive or PR-positive breast cancer. These cancers grow faster in response to the hormones estrogen or progesterone. Hormone therapy can block this effect. It might be used after surgery to help keep the cancer from coming back. Doctors sometimes give it to women with high risk factors to reduce the chances of getting breast cancer.
- Targeted Treatments
These newer drugs pinpoint specific things inside cancer cells. For example, women with HER2-positive breast cancer have too much of a protein called HER2. Targeted therapies can stop this protein from making cancer cells grow. These drugs are often used along with chemo because they tend to have milder side effects.
Cancer treatment can be local or systemic:
- Local treatments involve only the area of disease. Radiation and surgery are forms of local treatment. They are most effective when the cancer has not spread outside the breast.
- Systemic treatments affect the entire body. Chemotherapy and hormonal therapy are types of systemic treatment.
Reducing Your Risks for Breast Cancer
Many risk factors, such as your genes and family history, cannot be controlled. But making healthy lifestyle changes may reduce your overall chance of getting cancer. This includes:
- Eating healthy foods
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Limiting alcohol consumption to 1 drink per day
Women who breast feed their children for the normal length of time (6 months exclusively and up to 2 years or beyond partially) can reduce their risk of breast cancer by 25%. You can also reduce your risk by maintaining a low BMI and by getting exercise. You should also cut back on the amount of alcohol you drink. Birth control pills and some forms of hormone therapy after menopause can boost the odds. But the risk seems to go back to normal after you stop these medications. Good lifestyle choices can help survivors, too. Research says physical activity can lower the chances your cancer will return. And it’s a proven mood-booster, too.
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