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Breast Cancer


Topic Overview

Is this topic for you?

This topic is for women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer for the first time. If you are looking for information on breast cancer that has spread or come back after treatment, see the topic Breast Cancer, Metastatic or Recurrent.

For male breast cancer, see the topic Breast Cancer in Men.

What is breast cancer?

Breast cancerClick here to see an illustration. occurs when abnormal cells grow out of control in one or both breasts. They can 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.

Breast cancer that begins in the ducts of the breastClick here to see an illustration. is called ductal carcinoma. It is the most common type of breast cancer. This topic focuses on breast cancer that begins in the ducts.

Breast cancer is many women's worst fear. But experts have made great progress in treating cancer. If it is found early, breast cancer can often be successfully treated, and it is not always necessary to remove the breast.

What causes breast cancer?

Doctors don't know exactly what causes breast cancer. But some things are known to increase the chance that you will get it. These are called risk factors. Risk factors that you cannot change include getting older and having changes to certain genes. Risk factors you can change include using certain types of hormone therapy after menopause, being overweight, and not getting enough physical activity.1

But many women who have risk factors don't get breast cancer. And many women who get breast cancer don't have any known risk factors other than being female and getting older.

What are the symptoms?

Breast cancer can cause:

  • 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. There may be a change in the size or shape of the breast.
  • A change in the nipple. It may turn in. The skin around it may look scaly.
  • A fluid that comes out of the nipple.

See your doctor right away if you notice any of these changes.

How is breast cancer diagnosed?

During a regular physical exam, your doctor can check your breasts to look for lumps or changes. Depending on your age and risk factors, the doctor may advise you to have a mammogram, which is an X-ray of the breast. A mammogram can often find a lump that is too small to be felt. Sometimes a woman finds a lump during a breast self-exam.

If you or your doctor finds a lump or another change, the doctor will want to take a sample of the cells in your breast (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. Your treatment choices will be based partly on the type and stage of cancer.

How is it treated?

You and your doctor will decide which mix of treatments is right for you based on many things. These include facts about your cancer as well as your family history, other health problems, and your feelings about keeping your breast.

Breast cancer is usually treated with surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, hormone therapy, or targeted therapy.

In some cases, you may need to decide whether to have surgery to remove just the cancer (breast-conserving surgery, or lumpectomy) or surgery that removes the entire breast (mastectomy).

Treatments can cause side effects. Your doctor can let you know what problems to expect and help you find ways to manage them.

When you find out that you have cancer, you may feel many emotions and may need some help coping. Talking with other women who are going through the same thing may help. Your doctor or your local branch of the American Cancer Society can help you find a support group.

Can breast cancer be prevented?

At this time, there is no sure way to prevent breast cancer.

Some risk factors, such as your age and being female, cannot be controlled. But you may be able to do things to stay as healthy as you can, such as having a healthy diet and being active. Knowing your risk of getting breast cancer also can help you choose what steps to take.

Talk to your doctor about your risk. Find out when to start having mammograms and how often you need one. If your doctor confirms that you have a high or very high risk, ask about ways to reduce your risk, such as getting extra screening, taking medicine, or having surgery.

If you have a strong family history of breast cancer, ask your doctor about genetic testing. A blood test can check for changes in the BRCA genes that may increase your chance of getting breast cancer and ovarian cancer.

Frequently Asked Questions

Learning about breast cancer:

Being diagnosed:

Getting treatment:

Living with breast cancer:

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