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BreastCancerFactSheet.com is brought to you by AllNetHealth.com and is intended to provide basic information that you can use to make informed decisions about important health issues affecting you or your loved ones. We hope that you’ll find this information about Breast Cancer helpful and that you’ll seek professional medical advice to address any specific symptoms you might have related to this matter.

In addition to this site, we have created the "Healthpedia Network" of sites to provide specific information on a wide variety of health topics.

For additional information and a detailed definition of cancer, please visit CancerFactSheet.com

 

 

 

What is cancer?

What is breast cancer?

What causes breast cancer?

What are the risk factors for breast cancer?

How can I avoid breast cancer?

Screening for breast cancer

What are the symptoms of breast cancer?

How is breast cancer diagnosed?

What are the treatment methods for breast cancer?

Where can I buy a home test kit for breast cancer?

More information on breast cancer

 

 

What is cancer? (top)

Cancer begins in cells, the building blocks that make up tissues. Tissues make up the organs of the body.

Normally, cells grow and divide to form new cells as the body needs them. When cells grow old, they die, and new cells take their place.

Sometimes, this orderly process goes wrong. New cells form when the body does not need them, and old cells do not die when they should. These extra cells can form a mass of tissue called a growth or tumor.

Benign tumors are not cancer. They can often be removed and, in most cases, they do not come back. Cells in benign tumors do not spread to other parts of the body. Most important, benign tumors are rarely a threat to life.

Malignant tumors are cancer. Cells in malignant tumors are abnormal and divide without control or order. Cancer cells invade and destroy the tissue around them. Cancer cells can also break away from a malignant tumor and enter the bloodstream or lymphatic system.

 

What is breast cancer? (top)

Breast cancer is when these cancer cells spread into lymph nodes near the breast.

Breast cancer can spread to almost any other part of the body. The most common are the bones, liver, lungs, and brain. The new tumor has the same kind of abnormal cells and the same name as the primary tumor. For example, if breast cancer spreads to the bones, the cancer cells in the bones are actually breast cancer cells. The disease is metastatic breast cancer, not bone cancer. For that reason, it is treated as breast cancer, not bone cancer. Doctors call the new tumor "distant" or metastatic disease.

 

What causes breast cancer? (top)

No one knows the exact causes of breast cancer. Doctors often cannot explain why one woman develops breast cancer and another does not. They do know that bumping, bruising, or touching the breast does not cause cancer. And breast cancer is not contagious. You cannot "catch" it from another person.

 

What are the risk factors for breast cancer? (top)

Research has shown that women with certain risk factors are more likely than others to develop breast cancer. A risk factor is something that may increase the chance of developing a disease.

Studies have found the following risk factors for breast cancer:

• Age: The chance of getting breast cancer goes up as a woman gets older. Most cases of breast cancer occur in women over 60. This disease is not common before menopause.

• Personal history of breast cancer: A woman who had breast cancer in one breast has an increased risk of getting cancer in her other breast.

• Family history: A woman's risk of breast cancer is higher if her mother, sister, or daughter had breast cancer. The risk is higher if her family member got breast cancer before age 40. Having other relatives with breast cancer (in either her mother's or father's family) may also increase a woman's risk.

• Certain breast changes: Some women have cells in the breast that look abnormal under a microscope. Having certain types of abnormal cells (atypical hyperplasia and lobular carcinoma in situ [LCIS]) increases the risk of breast cancer.

• Gene changes: Changes in certain genes increase the risk of breast cancer. These genes include BRCA1, BRCA2, and others. Tests can sometimes show the presence of specific gene changes in families with many women who have had breast cancer. Health care providers may suggest ways to try to reduce the risk of breast cancer, or to improve the detection of this disease in women who have these changes in their genes.

• Reproductive and menstrual history:

- The older a woman is when she has her first child, the greater her chance of breast cancer.

- Women who had their first menstrual period before age 12 are at an increased risk of breast cancer.

- Women who went through menopause after age 55 are at an increased risk of breast cancer.

- Women who never had children are at an increased risk of breast cancer.

Women who take menopausal hormone therapy with estrogen plus progestin after menopause also appear to have an increased risk of breast cancer.

- Large, well-designed studies have shown no link between abortion or miscarriage and breast cancer.

• Race: Breast cancer is diagnosed more often in white women than Latina, Asian, or African American women.

• Radiation therapy to the chest: Women who had radiation therapy to the chest (including breasts) before age 30 are at an increased risk of breast cancer. This includes women treated with radiation for Hodgkin's lymphoma. Studies show that the younger a woman was when she received radiation treatment, the higher her risk of breast cancer later in life.

• Breast density: Breast tissue may be dense or fatty. Older women whose mammograms (breast x-rays) show more dense tissue are at increased risk of breast cancer. Taking DES (diethylstilbestrol): DES was given to some pregnant women in the United States between about 1940 and 1971. (It is no longer given to pregnant women.) Women who took DES during pregnancy may have a slightly increased risk of breast cancer. The possible effects on their daughters are under study.

• Being overweight or obese after menopause: The chance of getting breast cancer after menopause is higher in women who are overweight or obese.

• Lack of physical activity: Women who are physically inactive throughout life may have an increased risk of breast cancer. Being active may help reduce risk by preventing weight gain and obesity.

• Drinking alcohol: Studies suggest that the more alcohol a woman drinks, the greater her risk of breast cancer.

Other possible risk factors are under study. Researchers are studying the effect of diet, physical activity, and genetics on breast cancer risk. They are also studying whether certain substances in the environment can increase the risk of breast cancer.

Many risk factors can be avoided. Others, such as family history, cannot be avoided. Women can help protect themselves by staying away from known risk factors whenever possible.

But it is also important to keep in mind that most women who have known risk factors do not get breast cancer. Also, most women with breast cancer do not have a family history of the disease. In fact, except for growing older, most women with breast cancer have no clear risk factors.

If you think you may be at risk, you should discuss this concern with your doctor. Your doctor may be able to suggest ways to reduce your risk and can plan a schedule for checkups.

 

How can I avoid breast cancer? (top)

Screening for breast cancer before there are symptoms can be important. You should ask your doctor about when to start and how often to check for breast cancer.

 

Screening for breast cancer (top)

Screening for breast cancer before there are symptoms can be important. Screening can help doctors find and treat cancer early. Treatment is more likely to work well when cancer is found early.

Your doctor may suggest the following screening tests for breast cancer:

Screening Mammogram:

A mammogram is a picture of the breast made with x-rays and can often show a breast lump before it can be felt. To find breast cancer early, NCI (National Cancer Institute) recommends that:

• Women in their 40s and older should have mammograms every 1 to 2 years.

• Women who are younger than 40 and have risk factors for breast cancer should ask their health care provider whether to have mammograms and how often to have them.

Mammograms can also show a cluster of tiny specks of calcium. These specks are called microcalcifications. Lumps or specks can be from cancer, precancerous cells, or other conditions. Further tests are needed to find out if abnormal cells are present.

If an abnormal area shows up on your mammogram, you may need to have more x-rays. You also may need a biopsy. A biopsy is the only way to tell for sure if cancer is present. (The "Diagnosis" section has more information on biopsy.)

Mammograms are the best tool doctors have to find breast cancer early. However, mammograms are not perfect:

A mammogram may miss some cancers. (The result is called a "false negative.")

A mammogram may show things that turn out not to be cancer. (The result is called a "false positive.")

Some fast-growing tumors may grow large or spread to other parts of the body before a mammogram detects them.

Mammograms (as well as dental x-rays, and other routine x-rays) use very small doses of radiation. The risk of any harm is very slight, but repeated x-rays could cause problems. The benefits nearly always outweigh the risk. You should talk with your health care provider about the need for each x-ray. You should also ask for shields to protect parts of your body that are not in the picture.

Clinical Breast Exam:  

During a clinical breast exam, your health care provider checks your breasts. You may be asked to raise your arms over your head, let them hang by your sides, or press your hands against your hips.

Your health care provider looks for differences in size or shape between your breasts. The skin of your breasts is checked for a rash, dimpling, or other abnormal signs. Your nipples may be squeezed to check for fluid.

Using the pads of the fingers to feel for lumps, your health care provider checks your entire breast, underarm, and collarbone area. A lump is generally the size of a pea before anyone can feel it. The exam is done on one side, then the other. Your health care provider checks the lymph nodes near the breast to see if they are enlarged.

A thorough clinical breast exam may take about 10 minutes.

Self Breast Exam:

You may perform monthly breast self-exams to check for any changes in your breasts. It is important to remember that changes can occur because of aging, your menstrual cycle, pregnancy, menopause, or taking birth control pills or other hormones. It is normal for breasts to feel a little lumpy and uneven. Also, it is common for your breasts to be swollen and tender right before or during your menstrual period.

You should contact your health care provider if you notice any unusual changes in your breasts.

Breast self-exams cannot replace regular screening mammograms and clinical breast exams. Studies have not shown that breast self-exams alone reduce the number of deaths from breast cancer.

 

What are the symptoms of breast cancer? (top)

Common symptoms of breast cancer include:

A change in how the breast or nipple feels:

• A lump or thickening in or near the breast or in the underarm area

• Nipple tenderness

A change in how the breast or nipple looks:

• A change in the size or shape of the breast

• A nipple turned inward into the breast

• The skin of the breast, areola, or nipple may be scaly, red, or swollen. It may have ridges or pitting so that it looks like the skin of an orange.

• Nipple discharge (fluid)

Early breast cancer usually does not cause pain. Still, a woman should see her health care provider about breast pain or any other symptom that does not go away. Most often, these symptoms are not due to cancer. Other health problems may also cause them but your doctor should be told so a diagnosis can be made.

 

How is breast cancer diagnosed? (top)

If you have a symptom or screening test result that suggests cancer, your doctor must find out whether it is due to cancer or to some other cause. Your doctor may ask about your personal and family medical history. You may have a physical exam. Your doctor also may order a mammogram or other imaging procedure. These tests make pictures of tissues inside the breast. After the tests, your doctor may decide no other exams are needed. Your doctor may suggest that you have a follow-up exam later on. Or you may need to have a biopsy to look for cancer cells.

 

Diagnostic Mammogram

Diagnostic mammograms are x-ray pictures of the breast. They take clearer, more detailed images of areas that look abnormal on a screening mammogram. Doctors use them to learn more about unusual breast changes, such as a lump, pain, thickening, nipple discharge, or change in breast size or shape. Diagnostic mammograms may focus on a specific area of the breast. They may involve special techniques and more views than screening mammograms.

Ultrasound

An ultrasound device sends out sound waves that people cannot hear. The waves bounce off tissues. A computer uses the echoes to create a picture. Your doctor can view these pictures on a monitor. The pictures may show whether a lump is solid or filled with fluid. A cyst is a fluid-filled sac. Cysts are not cancer. But a solid mass may be cancer. After the test, your doctor can store the pictures on video or print them out. This exam may be used along with a mammogram.

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) uses a powerful magnet linked to a computer. MRI makes detailed pictures of breast tissue. Your doctor can view these pictures on a monitor or print them on film. MRI may be used along with a mammogram.

Biopsy:  

Your doctor may refer you to a surgeon or breast disease specialist for a biopsy. Fluid or tissue is removed from your breast to help find out if there is cancer.

Doctors can remove tissue from the breast in different ways:

Fine-needle aspiration: Your doctor uses a thin needle to remove fluid from a breast lump. If the fluid appears to contain cells, a pathologist at a lab checks them for cancer with a microscope. If the fluid is clear, it may not need to be checked by a lab.

Core biopsy: Your doctor uses a thick needle to remove breast tissue. A pathologist checks for cancer cells. This procedure is also called a needle biopsy.

Surgical biopsy: Your surgeon removes a sample of tissue. A pathologist checks the tissue for cancer cells.

An incisional biopsy takes a sample of a lump or abnormal area.

An excisional biopsy takes the entire lump or area.

If cancer cells are found, the pathologist can tell what kind of cancer it is. The most common type of breast cancer is ductal carcinoma. Abnormal cells are found in the lining of the ducts.

 

What are the treatment methods for breast cancer?  (top)

Many women with breast cancer want to take an active part in making decisions about their medical care. It is natural to want to learn all you can about your disease and treatment choices. Knowing more about breast cancer helps many women cope.

Women with breast cancer have many treatment options. These include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, hormone therapy, and biological therapy. These options are described below. Many women receive more than one type of treatment.

Cancer treatment is either local therapy or systemic therapy:

• Local therapy: Surgery and radiation therapy are local treatments. They remove or destroy cancer in the breast. When breast cancer has spread to other parts of the body, local therapy may be used to control the disease in those specific areas.

• Systemic therapy: Chemotherapy, hormone therapy, and biological therapy are systemic treatments. They enter the bloodstream and destroy or control cancer throughout the body. Some women with breast cancer have systemic therapy to shrink the tumor before surgery or radiation. Others have systemic therapy after surgery and/or radiation to prevent the cancer from coming back. Systemic treatments also are used for cancer that has spread.

 

Surgery

Surgery is the most common treatment for breast cancer. There are several types of surgery. (See pictures below.) Your doctor can explain each type, discuss and compare the benefits and risks, and describe how each will change the way you look:

Breast-sparing surgery: An operation to remove the cancer but not the breast is breast-sparing surgery. It is also called breast-conserving surgery, lumpectomy, segmental mastectomy, and partial mastectomy. Sometimes an excisional biopsy serves as a lumpectomy because the surgeon removes the whole lump.

The surgeon often removes the underarm lymph nodes as well. A separate incision is made. This procedure is called an axillary lymph node dissection. It shows whether cancer cells have entered the lymphatic system.

After breast-sparing surgery, most women receive radiation therapy to the breast. This treatment destroys cancer cells that may remain in the breast.

Mastectomy: An operation to remove the breast (or as much of the breast tissue as possible) is a mastectomy. In most cases, the surgeon also removes lymph nodes under the arm. Some women have radiation therapy after surgery.

Studies have found equal survival rates for breast-sparing surgery (with radiation therapy) and mastectomy for Stage I and Stage II breast cancer.

Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy (also called radiotherapy) uses high-energy rays to kill cancer cells. Most women receive radiation therapy after breast-sparing surgery. Some women receive radiation therapy after a mastectomy. Treatment depends on the size of the tumor and other factors. The radiation destroys breast cancer cells that may remain in the area.

Some women have radiation therapy before surgery to destroy cancer cells and shrink the tumor. Doctors use this approach when the tumor is large or may be hard to remove. Some women also have chemotherapy or hormone therapy before surgery.

Doctors use two types of radiation therapy to treat breast cancer. Some women receive both types:

External radiation: The radiation comes from a large machine outside the body. Most women go to a hospital or clinic for treatment. Treatments are usually 5 days a week for several weeks.

Internal radiation (implant radiation): Thin plastic tubes (implants) that hold a radioactive substance are put directly in the breast. The implants stay in place for several days. A woman stays in the hospital while she has implants. Doctors remove the implants before she goes home.

Side effects depend mainly on the dose and type of radiation and the part of your body that is treated.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy uses anticancer drugs to kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy for breast cancer is usually a combination of drugs. The drugs may be given as a pill or by injection into a vein (IV). Either way, the drugs enter the bloodstream and travel throughout the body.

Women with breast cancer can have chemotherapy in an outpatient part of the hospital, at the doctor's office, or at home. Some women need to stay in the hospital during treatment.

Side effects depend mainly on the specific drugs and the dose. The drugs affect cancer cells and other 'healthy' cells that divide rapidly.

Hormone Therapy

Some breast tumors need hormones to grow. Hormone therapy keeps cancer cells from getting or using the natural hormones they need. These hormones are estrogen and progesterone. Lab tests can show if a breast tumor has hormone receptors. If you have this kind of tumor, you may have hormone therapy.

This treatment uses drugs or surgery:

Drugs: Your doctor may suggest a drug that can block the natural hormone. One drug is tamoxifen, which blocks estrogen. Another type of drug prevents the body from making the female hormone estradiol. Estradiol is a form of estrogen. This type of drug is an aromatase inhibitor. If you have not gone through menopause, your doctor may give you a drug that stops the ovaries from making estrogen.

Surgery: If you have not gone through menopause, you may have surgery to remove your ovaries. The ovaries are the main source of the body's estrogen. A woman who has gone through menopause does not need surgery. (The ovaries produce less estrogen after menopause.)

The side effects of hormone therapy depend largely on the specific drug or type of treatment.

Biological Therapy

Biological therapy helps the immune system fight cancer. The immune system is the body's natural defense against disease.

Some women with breast cancer that has spread receive a biological therapy called Herceptin® (trastuzumab). It is a monoclonal antibody. It is made in the laboratory and binds to cancer cells.

Herceptin is given to women whose lab tests show that a breast tumor has too much of a specific protein known as HER2. By blocking HER2, it can slow or stop the growth of the cancer cells.

Herceptin is given by vein. It may be given alone or with chemotherapy.

The first time a woman receives Herceptin, the most common side effects are fever and chills.

 

Click here to buy a home test kit for breast cancer.

 

More Information

All aspects of breast cancer:   National Cancer Institute

Information specialists online: LiveHelp

To find nearby treatment centers: 1-800-4-CANCER

 

 

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