What is breast cancer?

Breast cancer occurs when abnormal cells multiply in one or both breasts. These cells may invade nearby tissues and form a mass, called a malignant tumor. The cancer cells can spread (metastasize) to the lymph nodes and other parts of the body.

There is great progress in cancer treatment, and if found early, breast cancer can often be cured, without removing the breast.

What causes breast cancer?

Doctors are uncertain what causes breast cancer, but some risk factors are known to increase your chances. Risk factors that you cannot change include:

  • Being a woman
  • Getting older
  • Genetics
  • Your race and ethnicity. White women have slightly higher risk for getting breast cancer than African-American women. Asian, Hispanic, and Native American women have even less risk.
  • Having a history of radiation treatment to the chest

There are also risk factors that you may be able to change that are related to your lifestyle:

  • Using hormone therapy after menopause
  • Lack of physical activity
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Not breast-feeding
  • Not having children, or not having children until after age 30
  • Drinking alcoholic beverages

Many women who have these risk factors do not get breast cancer. And many women who get breast cancer do not have any known risk factors other than being female and getting older.

What are the symptoms?

  • A change in the way the breast feels. The most common symptom is a painless lump or thickening in the breast or underarm.
  • A change in the way the breast looks. The skin on the breast may dimple or look like an orange peel or the size and shape of the breast may change.
  • A change in the nipple; it may turn in, or the skin around it may look scaly.
  • Fluid that drains from the nipple.

How is it treated?

Most people have surgery to remove the cancer. You might have radiation, chemotherapy, or hormone therapy before surgery to help shrink the cancer. The surgeon may remove some of the lymph nodes under your arm to find out if the cancer has spread to this area. After surgery, radiation therapy that destroys cancer cells, chemotherapy or hormone therapy may be recommended.

Depending on the cancer stage, you may have a choice:

  • Surgery to remove just the cancer from the breast (breast-conserving surgery, or lumpectomy). Several weeks of radiation after surgery are usually recommended.
  • Surgery to remove the breast (mastectomy). If you choose mastectomy, you can have an operation to create a new breast (breast reconstruction). Sometimes radiation is not needed after a mastectomy.

Historically, breast cancer meant having your breast removed. This is no longer true. Studies show that with early-stage cancer, breast-conserving surgery followed by radiation therapy can be as effective as mastectomy. You and your doctor will decide which group of treatments is right for you. Family history, facts about your cancer, other health problems and your own preferences are factors in decision making. Learn about your options so you can make the choices that are right for you. Some treatments can cause side effects. Your doctor can let you know what problems to expect and help you find ways to manage them.

Learning that you have breast cancer can cause a range of feelings, from sadness and fear to anger and despair. If your emotions are making it hard to move ahead, be sure to tell your doctor. You may benefit from counseling or find a support group. Talking with other people who have faced the same choices can be a big help.

Can breast cancer be prevented?

You cannot control some things that put you at risk for breast cancer, such as your gender and age, but you can change other risk factors to stay as healthy as possible.

What you can do:

  • Eat a healthy diet with lots of fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
  • Make exercise a routine part of your life.
  • Stay at a healthy weight. Getting regular exercise and watch your diet.
  • If you drink alcohol, limit the amount.
  • Have regular exams and mammograms.