What Is Breast Cancer?
Cancer is a disease in which cells in the body grow out of control. When cancer starts in the breast, it is called breast cancer. Except for skin cancer, breast cancer is the most common cancer in American women.
A breast is made up of three main parts: glands, ducts, and connective tissue. The glands produce milk. The ducts are passages that carry milk to the nipple. The connective tissue (which consists of fibrous and fatty tissue) connects and holds everything together.
Many conditions can cause lumps in the breast, including cancer. But most breast lumps are caused by other medical conditions. The two most common causes of breast lumps are fibrocystic breast condition and cysts. Fibrocystic condition causes noncancerous changes in the breast that can make them lumpy, tender, and sore. Cysts are small fluid-filled sacs that can develop in the breast.
No breast is typical. What is normal for you may not be normal for another woman. Most women say their breasts feel lumpy or uneven. The way your breasts look and feel can be affected by getting your period, having children, losing or gaining weight, and taking certain medications. Breasts also tend to change as you age.
Are There Different Kinds of Breast Cancer?
There are different kinds of breast cancer. The kind of breast cancer depends on which cells in the breast turn into cancer. Breast cancer can begin in different parts of the breast, like the ducts or the lobes.
Common kinds of breast cancer are—
- Ductal carcinoma. The most common kind of
breast cancer. It begins in the cells that line the milk ducts in the breast, also called the lining of the breast ducts.
- Ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS). The abnormal cancer cells are only in the lining of the milk ducts, and have not spread to other tissues in the breast.
- Invasive ductal carcinoma. The abnormal cancer cells break through the ducts and spread into other parts of the breast tissue. Invasive cancer cells can also spread to other parts of the body.
- Lobular carcinoma. In this kind of breast cancer, the cancer cells begin in the lobes, or lobules, of the breast. Lobules are the glands that make milk.
- Lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS). The cancer cells are found only in the breast lobules. Lobular carcinoma in situ, or LCIS, does not spread to other tissues.
- Invasive lobular carcinoma. Cancer cells spread from the lobules to the breast tissues that are close by. These invasive cancer cells can also spread to other parts of the body.
What Is a Mammogram and When Should I Get One?
Regular mammograms are the best tests doctors have to find breast cancer early, sometimes up to three years before it can be felt. When their breast cancer is found early, many women go on to live long and healthy lives.
When should I get a mammogram?
Women should have mammograms every two years from age 50 to 74 years. Talk to your health professional if you have any symptoms or changes in your breast, or if breast cancer runs in your family. He or she may recommend that you have mammograms before age 50 or more often than usual.
How is a mammogram done?
You will stand in front of a special X-ray machine. A technologist will place your breast on a clear plastic plate. Another plate will firmly press your breast from above. The plates will flatten the breast, holding it still while the X-ray is being taken. You will feel some pressure. The other breast will be X-rayed in the same way. The steps are then repeated to make a side view of each breast. You will then wait while the technologist checks the four X-rays to make sure the pictures do not need to be re-done. Keep in mind that the technologist cannot tell you the results of your mammogram.
What does having a mammogram feel like?
Having a mammogram is uncomfortable for most women. Some women find it painful. A mammogram takes only a few moments, though, and the discomfort is over soon. What you feel depends on the skill of the technologist, the size of your breasts, and how much they need to be pressed. Your breasts may be more sensitive if you are about to get or have your period. A doctor with special training, called a radiologist, will read the mammogram. He or she will look at the X-ray for early signs of breast cancer or other problems.
When will I get the results of my mammogram?
You will usually get the results within a few weeks, although it depends on the facility. A radiologist reads your mammogram and then reports the results to you or your doctor. If there is a concern, you will hear from the mammography facility earlier. Contact your health professional or the mammography facility if you do not receive a report of your results within 30 days.
What happens if my mammogram is normal?
Continue to get regular mammograms. Mammograms work best when they can be compared with previous ones. This allows your doctor to compare them to look for changes in your breasts.
What happens if my mammogram is abnormal?
If it is abnormal, do not panic. An abnormal mammogram does not always mean that there is cancer. But you will need to have additional mammograms, tests, or exams before the doctor can tell for sure. You may also be referred to a breast specialist or a surgeon. It does not necessarily mean you have cancer or need surgery. These doctors are experts in diagnosing breast problems.
Where can I get a mammogram and who can I talk to if I have questions?
- If you have a regular doctor, talk to him or her.
- Call the National Cancer Institute's Cancer Information Service (CIS) at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237). For TTY: 1-800-332-8615.
- For Medicare information, you can call 1-800 MEDICARE (1-800-633-4227) or visit The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has a program called the National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program, which works with health departments and other groups to provide low-cost or free mammograms low-cost or free mammograms to women who qualify. Find out if you qualify.
What Are the Symptoms?
Different people have different warning signs for breast cancer. Some people do not have any
signs or symptoms at all. A person may find out they have breast cancer after a routine mammogram.mammogram.
Some warning signs of breast cancer are—
- New lump in the breast or underarm (armpit).
- Thickening or swelling of part of the breast.
- Irritation or dimpling of breast skin.
- Redness or flaky skin in the nipple area or the breast.
- Pulling in of the nipple or pain in the nipple area.
- Nipple discharge other than breast milk, including blood.
- Any change in the size or the shape of the breast.
- Pain in any area of the breast.
Keep in mind that some of these warning signs can happen with other conditions that are not cancer.
If you have any signs that worry you, be sure to see your doctor right away.
What Are the Risk Factors?
The main factors that influence your risk for breast cancer include being a woman, being older (most breast cancers are found in women who are 50 years old or older), and having changes in certain breast cancer genes (BRCA1 and BRCA2). In addition, studies have shown that some other factors may also influence your risk.
Factors That Decrease Your Risk
- Being older when you first had your menstrual period.
- Starting menopause at an earlier age.
- Giving birth to more children, being younger at the birth of your first child, and breastfeeding your children.
- Getting regular exercise.
- Maintaining a healthy weight.
Factors That Increase Your Risk
- Long-term use of hormone replacement therapy.
- Personal history of breast cancer or non-cancerous breast diseases.
- Family history of breast cancer (on either your mother’s or father’s side of the family).
- Treatment with radiation therapy to the breast/chest.
- Exposure to diethylstilbestrol (DES) (for example, if you took DES during pregnancy or your mother took DES during her pregnancy with you).
- Dense breasts by mammogram.
- Drinking alcohol.
- Night-shift work.
Some women will develop breast
cancer even without any known risk factors. Having a risk factor does not mean you will get the disease, and not all risk factors affect your risk to the same extent. Most women have some risk factors and most women do not get breast cancer. If you have breast
cancer risk factors, talk with your doctor about ways you can lower your risklower your risk and about screeningscreening for breast cancer.
What Can I Do to Reduce My Risk?
Many factors can influence your breast cancer risk, and most women who develop breast cancer do not have any known risk factors or a history of the disease in their families. However, you can help lower your risk of breast cancer in the following ways—
- Keep a healthy weight.healthy weight.
- Exercise regularlyExercise regularly (at least four hours a week).
- Get enough sleep.
- Don't drink alcohol, or limit alcoholic drinks to no more than one per day.
- Avoid exposure to chemicals that can cause cancer (carcinigens).
- Try to reduce your exposure to radiation during medical tests like mammograms, X-rays, CT scans, and PET scans.
- If you are taking, or have been told to take, hormone replacement therapy or oral contraceptives (birth control pills), ask your doctor about the risks and find out if it is right for you.
- Breastfeed your babies, if possible.
Although breast cancer screeningbreast cancer screening cannot prevent breast cancer, it can help find breast cancer early, when it is easier to treat. Talk to your doctor about which breast cancer screening tests are right for you, and when you should have them.If you have a family history of breast cancer or inherited changes in your BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, you may have a higher breast cancer risk. Talk to your doctor about these ways of reducing your risk—
- Antiestrogens or other medicines that block or decrease estrogen in your body.
- Surgery to reduce your risk of breast cancer—
- Prophylactic (preventive) mastectomy (removal of breast tissue).
- Prophylactic (preventive) salpingo-oophorectomy (removal of the ovaries and fallopian tubes).
It is important that you know your family history and talk to your doctor about screening and other ways you can
lower your risk. For more information about breast cancer prevention, visit Breast
Cancer (PDQ): Prevention.