The outlook for women with breast cancer is improving constantly. Due to increased awareness, opportunities for early detection, and treatment advances, survival rates continue to climb. While around 200,000 women in the U.S. are diagnosed each year with breast cancer, the prognosis has never been better.
Symptoms of Breast Cancer
Breast cancer may or may not cause symptoms. Some women may discover the problem themselves, while others may have the abnormality first detected on a screening exam. Breast pain is not a common symptom of breast cancer. Some of the possible signs and symptoms include:
Non-painful lumps or massesK/li>
Lumps or swelling under the armsK/li>
Nipple skin changes or dischargeK/li>
Changes in the feel, size, or shape of the breast tissue
Inflammatory Breast Cancer
Inflammatory breast cancer is a rare type of cancer that often does not cause a breast lump or mass. As seen in this photo, it often causes thickening and pitting of the skin, like an orange peel. There may also be a skin rash or reddening of the skin. Inflammatory cancer of the breast typically has a fast growth rate.
Importance of Mammograms
Early detection of breast cancer is important for the best outcome. Mammograms are X-rays of the breast that can detect tumors at a very early stage, before they would be felt or noticed otherwise. The American Cancer Society recommends that women at average risk have a mammogram every year starting at age 40. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends that women from 50 to 74 years of age have a screening mammogram every 2 years. It also suggests that women under age 50 consult with their doctor to determine the best screening schedule for their individual situation.
Breast MRI and Ultrasound
Sometimes a breast ultrasound is ordered in addition to a mammogram. An ultrasound can demonstrate fluid-filled cysts that are not cancerous. Ultrasounds may also be recommended for routine screening tests in some women at a higher risk of developing breast cancer.
Many women grew up learning that they should perform routine breast self-exams. Recently, studies have shown that these exams are not as important as once believed in the early detection of cancer. Experts recommend that women be aware of their breasts and notice any changes, rather than performing checks on a regular schedule. Women who choose to do self-exams should be sure to discuss the technique with their doctor.
Finding a Lump
Remember that the majority (about 80%) of breast lumps are not due to cancer. Cysts, benign tumors, or changes in consistency due to the menstrual cycle can all cause benign breast lumps. Still, it's important to let your doctor know about any lumps or changes in your breast that you find. Early detection of breast cancer is associated with high cure rates.
Breast Cancer Biopsy
A biopsy is the most certain way to determine whether a breast lump is cancerous. Biopsies may be taken through a needle or through a minor surgical procedure. The results can also determine the type of breast cancer that is present in many cases (there are several different types of breast cancer). Treatments are tailored to the specific type of breast cancer that is present.
Hormone-Sensitive Breast Cancer
For example, a biopsy can tell whether the breast cancer has receptors for estrogen (ER-positive) and//or progesterone (PR-positive). This means the tumors grow in response to these hormones. About two-thirds of breast cancers are hormone receptor-positive. Medications can be given that act to help prevent growth of the tumor from stimulation by these hormones. The image shows a molecular model of the estrogen receptor.