Breast Cancer FAQs

Sources: National Cancer Institute, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, Advocate Health Care

Frequently Asked Questions

Breast cancer is a type of cancer that forms within breast tissues. It occurs in both men and women, though it is extremely rare among men. Following skin cancer, breast cancer is the most common type of cancer among women in the United States today. According to the National Cancer Institute, more than 268,600 women and more than 2,600 men are diagnosed with this disease each year.

Breast cancer is caused by uncontrolled cell division and growth, and usually develops within the mammary ducts or lobules. Cancerous breast tumors typically mature at a slow rate. It is highly possible that a tumor may continue growing for up to 10 years before it becomes large enough to be felt as a lump. Breast cancer is usually separated into two categories: invasive and carcinoma in situ.

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What is the difference between invasive breast cancer and carcinoma in situ?

Invasive breast cancer tends to be the more serious of the two types, because the abnormal and cancerous cells within the lobules or ducts break out into surrounding breast tissue. This allows the cancer to spread to the lymph nodes. In more advanced stages, cancer may also reach vital organs such as the liver, lungs or bones.

Carcinoma in situ is a condition in which abnormal cells grow inside the lobules or ducts and remain contained. Because these cells have not developed the ability to invade tissues beyond the ducts or lobules, they are not considered fully cancerous. Although carcinoma in situ has been deemed a pre-cancerous condition, it is important to recognize that it may increase the risk of, or develop into, invasive cancer.

Breast cancer primarily affects females, however approximately 1 percent of all breast cancer cases occur in men. Any woman is at risk, and her risk of getting breast cancer increases with age.

Being female — regardless of age or ethnicity — is the number one risk factor for breast cancer. Aside from gender, there are other factors that may further any woman’s chance of getting breast cancer.

Women with personal or family histories of either breast cancer or ovarian cancer are at high risk, as are women with certain genetic abnormalities such as BRCA-1 or BRCA-2 genes. Additionally, women who begin their menstrual cycles before age 12 or began menopause before age 50 are at higher risk for breast cancer. Women who are overweight and inactive are at high risk. Long term use of hormone replacement therapy and radiation therapy to the chest increase a woman’s risk, as well.

Because the majority of breast cancer cases occur in women without any of the previous risk factors, lifestyle factors such as diet and exercise are also believed to contribute to the development of breast cancer.

  • A lump, hard knot or thickening in the breast
  • A lump in the underarm area
  • Change in the size or shape of a breast
  • Nipple pain, tenderness or discharge, including bleeding
  • Itchiness, scales, soreness or rash on nipple
  • Nipple turning inward or inverted
  • Change in skin color and texture: dimpling, puckering or redness
  • Breast that feels warm or swollen

Certain risk factors, such as age and family history, cannot be controlled by the individual; therefore, early detection is the best weapon against breast cancer.

While you may have no control over your age or genetics, you do have control over your lifestyle. You are capable of reducing your risk for breast cancer by simply leading a healthy life.

  • If you consume alcohol, limit drinks to one a day for women, two for men.
  • Be physically active and exercise 30 to 60 minutes daily.
  • Maintain a healthy body weight.
  • If you have children, breast feed them.
  • Have clinical breast exams (CBE) by a health care professional throughout your 20s and 30s, at least every three years.
  • Begin annual CBEs at age 40.
  • Begin annual screening mammograms at age 40.
  • If you are at high risk, talk with your health care professional about beginning annual screening mammograms at a younger age and MRI(magnetic resonance imaging).
  • If you have a family history of breast cancer, discuss genetics testing with a genetics counselor.
  • At menopause, talk with your health care professional about whether you should have hormone replacement therapy.

Note: Breast self exam is one way for women to learn what is normal for their breasts. Any changes should be quickly reported to their health care professionals.

Mammography is a special type of imaging that uses a safe, low-dose x-ray system to examine the breasts. Because this imaging is capable of showing changes in the breasts up to two years before a patient or physician can feel them, it plays a central role in the early detection and prevention of breast cancer.

Health care specialists rely on mammograms not only to detect early stages of breast cancer in women experiencing no signs of breast cancer, and also to detect and diagnose breast cancer in women experiencing symptoms such as lumps, pain and nipple discharge.

During a mammogram, pressure will be applied to the soft tissues until firmness of the breast is reached. This is necessary in order to obtain quality film. This pressure may cause several seconds of discomfort. If you experience any pain during your exam, it is alright for you to ask the mammographer to stop and try making adjustments. Just keep in mind that the applied pressure is important in acquiring a good image, and will only last about 30 seconds.

Inflammatory breast cancer, or IBC, is an uncommon yet extremely aggressive form of breast cancer. IBC develops when abnormal and cancerous cells obstruct the lymph vessels in overlaying skin. This type of breast cancer often makes the breast appear swollen, red, or inflamed — hence the name “inflammatory” breast cancer.

IBC accounts for no more than five percent of all breast cancer cases within the United States, and tends to affect women at a younger age. Just like any other form of breast cancer, IBC may also occur in men.

IBC is considered a locally advanced cancer, as it will likely spread from its place of origin to any surrounding tissue, including nearby lymph nodes. Because IBC is always diagnosed as a stage III or IV, survival rates for tend to be lower in comparison to other locally advanced breast cancers. According to the National Cancer Institute, the 5-year survival rate of IBC patients is between 25-50 percent.

Breast lumps, and other early signs of more-common breast cancers, are absent in the development of IBC. Therefore, IBC is rarely detected through mammography. Some common indicators of IBC include:

  • Sudden swelling of the breast
  • Itching sensation
  • Change in skin color — skin will appear red, pink, or bruised
  • Change in skin texture — dimpling, ridges like the skin of an orange
  • Inverted nipple
  • Nipple discharge — may or may not be bloody
  • Breast is warm to the touch
  • Breast pain, tenderness, heaviness, burning or aching
  • Change in color and texture of the areola
  • Swollen lymph nodes under the arm, above the collarbone or both

Because breast cancer is more prevalent in women over 40, many in their 20s and 30s with IBC have been misdiagnosed in the past. IBC may easily be confused with mastitis, a relatively minor breast infection, as they share similar symptoms. Unlike mastitis, symptoms related to IBC will persist after antibiotic treatment. Should you notice any changes in breast appearance, seek medical attention immediately. Diagnosis of IBC is assumed clinically and is generally confirmed through biopsy.

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