What do you need to know about breast cancer?

Posted by Purvi Gada, MD, Minnesota Oncology and Ridgeview Cancer & Infusion Center on Oct 1, 2019 1:30:00 PM

BreastCancer1in8Just a few decades ago, little was known about breast cancer. It was a rarely talked about disease. Today, breast cancer is in the news almost daily, and much of what we read and hear involves breakthroughs in early detection, new drug therapies and the latest treatment techniques.

While the progress we have made is commendable, we still have a long way to go. Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women, except for skin cancers. In 2018, 266,120 women were diagnosed with breast cancer and 40,920 women lost their lives to the disease.

While these statistics are staggering, there is a positive trend to report. Death rates from breast cancer have begun to decline, likely because of earlier detection through screening and improved treatment. That's why increasing breast cancer awareness is so important.

As you may know, the month of October is recognized as National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. During this month and throughout the year, doctors strive to educate women about breast cancer and encourage them to follow the recommended guidelines for screening. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends that women have a mammogram every one to two years beginning at age 40. A clinical breast exam should be done every three years for women in their 20s and 30s, and every year for women 40 and older. Women should also know how their breasts normally feel and report any change promptly to their health care provider. Women with family history, genetic tendency or past breast cancer should speak with their health care provider about starting mammography screening earlier, having additional tests or having more frequent exams. 

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Risk factors

  • Age - breast cancer usually occurs in women over the age of 50, but can occur in women regardless of age.
  • Genetic changes - about five to 10 percent of breast cancers are attributed to genetic changes.
  • Family history - the chance of developing breast cancer increases when immediate family members have the disease.
  • Personal history - women who had cancer in one breast will have an increased risk of developing cancer in another area of that same breast or in the other breast.
  • Race - caucasian women have higher incident rates, but African American women have higher death rates.
  • Menstrual periods - women who began their menstrual periods before the age of 12 or went through menopause after the age of 55 have an increased chance of breast cancer.
  • Alcohol - consumption of alcohol can slightly increase a woman's chance of developing breast cancer. The American Cancer Society suggests limiting the amount of alcohol consumption.
  • Weight - being overweight is linked to a higher risk of breast cancer. Diet and weight are also linked to other cancer types and heart disease.

Signs and symptoms

The most common sign of breast cancer is a lump or mass. It is usually hard, painless and has uneven edges. Some lumps or masses, however, can be soft and rounded. Anything unusual should be evaluated by a doctor immediately.

Other signs include:

  • swelling in part of the breast
  • skin irritation or dimpling
  • nipple pain or the nipple turning inward
  • redness or scaliness of the nipple or breast skin
  • a nipple discharge that is not breast milk
  • a lump in the underarm

Male breast cancer

Breast cancer occurs mainly in women, but men can get it too. Many people do not realize that men have breast tissue and that they can develop breast cancer. Cells in nearly any part of the body can become cancer and can spread to other areas.

Breast cancers can start from different parts of the breast. Most breast cancers begin in the ducts that carry milk to the nipple (ductal cancers). Some start in the glands that make breast milk (lobular cancers). Men have these ducts and glands too, even though they aren't normally functional. There are also types of breast cancer that start in other types of breast cells, but these are less common.

As researches continue to work toward better knowledge of breast cancer, it is hoped women will continue to do their part in the fight against this disease by performing regular breast self-exams, seeing their health care providers for clinical exams and having regular mammograms. Together, we can save lives.

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Topics: Women's Health

Medical and health information presented here is intended to be general in nature, and should not be viewed as a substitute for professional advice. Please consult with a health care professional for all matters relating to personal medical and health care issues. In case of an emergency, please call 911. 

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