Patient Health Resource: Breast Cancer

Breast cancer is the second most common type of cancer in women. Doctors don't know exactly what causes it, but some things are known to increase the chance that you will get it, such as your age and health history.

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There is no sure way to prevent breast cancer. But regular preventive screenings help detect breast cancer at an early stage, when it is most treatable.

The average woman has a small chance of getting breast cancer. But if someone in your family has had breast cancer, your chances of getting these cancers may be higher. If you have two or three relatives who have had these cancers, your chances may be even higher.

Most breast cancer is found in women. Men can also get breast cancer, but it is rare (less than 1% of all cases in the U.S.).

While a family history of breast cancer might increase your chances, all women are at risk. Schedule regular screenings with your care provider.

Risk  

The top risk factors for breast cancer are:

  • Aging — Your risk increases as you get older.
  • Being female — Most breast cancer is found in women. 

Other risks include:

  • Health history — Having dense breasts, a breast disease that isn't cancer, or previous breast cancer increases your risk.
  • Family history — Having a history of breast cancer in your family increases your risk.
  • Race — White women have a higher risk than Black, Hispanic or Asian women.
  • Hormones — Female hormones play a part in some types of breast cancer.

Prevention

At this time, there is no sure way to prevent breast cancer. But you can make healthy choices that help lower your risk.

If you're at high risk for breast cancer, your doctor may talk to you about ways to lower your risk, such as taking hormone therapy or having surgery to remove your breast. Based on your risk, your doctor will recommend a screening schedule for you. Your doctor may also talk with you about genetic testing.

Lifestyle choices

Some things that increase your risk of breast cancer, such as your age and gender, cannot be controlled. But you can do some things to stay as healthy as you can. These choices include:

  • Staying at a healthy weight.
  • Eating a healthy, low-fat diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
  • Getting plenty of physical activity.
  • If you drink alcohol, limiting how much you drink. Any amount of alcohol may increase your risk for some types of cancer.
  • Don’t smoke. If you need help quitting, talk to your doctor about stop-smoking programs and medicines. 
  • Breastfeed. There is some evidence that breastfeeding may lower the risk of breast cancer. The benefit seems to be greatest in women who have breastfed for longer than 12 months or who breastfed several children.

Active monitoring

Your risk for breast cancer increases as you get older. There is no known way to prevent breast cancer. But with some cancers, finding them early can increase your chances of successful treatment. Below are steps you can take to help reduce your risk:

  • Get familiar with the look and feel of your breasts. This will help you notice any changes. Call your doctor’s office if you notice a change.
  • Have regular breast exams by your healthcare provider. Ask your provider how often you should get them.
  • Have regular mammograms. A mammogram can find changes in your breast before you can feel them. Talk to your doctor about when to get this test.
  • If you're at high risk for breast cancer, your doctor may talk to you about ways to lower your risk, such as taking hormone therapy or having surgery to remove your breast. Based on your risk, your doctor will recommend a screening schedule for you. Your doctor may also talk with you about genetic testing.

Signs and symptoms

While your healthcare provider and regular breast cancer screenings will help monitor your health, you also play a vital part. By knowing and monitoring your body for possible signs and symptoms of breast cancer, you are doing your part to manage and ensure your own well-being.

The first sign of breast cancer is often a painless lump. But early breast cancer is often found on a mammogram before a lump can be felt. Other symptoms of breast cancer may not appear until the cancer is more advanced.

These include:

  • A thickening in the breast or armpit.
  • A change in the size or shape of the breast.
  • Changes in the skin of the breast, such as a dimple or skin that looks like an orange peel.
  • A change in the nipple, such as scaling of the skin or a nipple that turns in.
  • A green or bloody fluid that comes from the nipple.
  • A change in the color or feel of the skin around the nipple (areola).

If you detect any symptoms, call your provider immediately to discuss your options for further screening.

Detection

Depending on your age and risk factors, the doctor may recommend that you have a mammogram. During a regular physical exam, your doctor can check your breasts for lumps or changes. You also may find a lump during a breast self-exam.

If there are concerns, the doctor will check to see if there is cancer by examining a sample of cells (biopsy). The results of the biopsy help your doctor know if you have cancer and what type of cancer it is. You may have other tests to find out the stage of the cancer. The stage is a way for doctors to describe how far the cancer has spread.

Why is a mammogram done?

A mammogram is done to:

  • Screen for breast cancer in women without symptoms.
  • Detect breast cancer in women with symptoms. Symptoms of breast cancer may include a lump or thickening in the breast, nipple discharge, or dimpling of the skin on one area of the breast.
  • Locate an area of suspicious breast tissue to remove for examination under a microscope (biopsy) when an abnormality is found.

Treatment

Your doctor may combine treatments. This is a common way to treat breast cancer. Treatment depends on what type and stage of cancer you have. You may have:

  • Surgery to remove the cancer.
  • Radiation — This uses high-dose X-rays to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors.
  • Chemotherapy — This uses medicine to kill cancer cells.
  • Hormone therapy — This uses medicines such as tamoxifen. It limits the effect of the hormone estrogen. This hormone can help some types of breast cancer cells to grow.
  • Targeted therapy — This uses medicines to help your immune system fight the cancer.

Source: Healthwise

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