Key Points about Breast Cancer

  • While breast cancer overwhelmingly occurs in women, the disease can also occur in men.
  • A breast biopsy is a definitive tool for diagnosing breast cancer.
  • Treatment for breast cancer typically involves a combination of surgery and medicine therapy and other therapy such as radiation therapy.
  • Only 5 to 10 percent of breast cancers have a clear genetic link.

Overview 

Breast cancer is cancer that occurs in the cells of the breasts. It is the second most common cancer in women in the United States (after skin cancer). While far more common in women, breast cancer can occur in both women and men. In recent years, breast cancer survival rates have steadily increased, and the mortality rate is decreasing. These are due to factors including earlier, more accurate detection, a personalized approach to treatment and more research being done on the disease.

Breast cancer causes 

Cancer occurs when cells start to grow abnormally. These abnormal cells grow more quickly than healthy cells, leading to the formation of a lump or mass. Researchers believe that genetics and environment play a role in the development of breast cancer. About 5 to 10 percent of breast cancer occurrences are linked to gene mutations – such as the breast cancer gene 1 (BRCA1) and the breast cancer gene 2 (BRCA2) passed down in families.

Breast cancer risk factors

There are a range of factors that are known to increase your risk of developing breast cancer. These include:

  • Being female
  • Being obese
  • Being older
  • Carrying specific mutated genes – including BRCA1 or BRCA2
  • Drinking alcohol
  • Giving birth to your first child after age 30
  • Having a mother, sister or daughter diagnosed with breast cancer – especially at a young age
  • Having received radiation to the chest
  • Having taken estrogen and progesterone combination hormone therapy
  • Never having been pregnant
  • Personal history of lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS) or atypical hyperplasia of the breast (found during a breast biopsy)
  • Starting menopause at an older age
  • Starting your menstrual cycle (period) before age 12

Breast cancer symptoms

Symptoms of breast cancer can include:

  • A lump or thickened area in the breast that feels unusual
  • A newly inverted nipple
  • Change in the size, shape or appearance of the breast
  • Changes to the skin of the skin, such as dimpling
  • Crusting, peeling, scaling or flaking of discolored skin
  • Redness or pitting of the skin of the breast

Breast cancer diagnosis

Your specialist may recommend one or more of the following tests to diagnose breast cancer:

  • Breast exam. Your doctor will use the pads of their finger to carefully check both breasts and the lymph nodes in your armpit for lumps or other irregularities
  • Mammogram. This specialized X-ray can reveal areas of abnormality in the breasts.
  • Breast ultrasound. Ultrasound uses sound waves to obtain detailed images of inside the body. A breast ultrasound can help your doctor determine if a breast lump is a solid mass or a fluid-filled cyst.
  • Biopsy. Your doctor will remove a small breast tissue sample for closer analysis in the lab. A biopsy is the only definitive way to diagnose breast cancer.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). MRI uses magnet and radio waves to create detailed images of the inside of your breasts. You will likely receive an injection of contrast dye before you undergo the MRI.
  • Blood test. Once diagnosed, your doctor may use a blood test to stage your breast cancer and help determine your best course of treatment.
  • Bone scan. Once diagnosed, your doctor may use a bone scan to stage your breast cancer and help determine your best course of treatment.
  • Other imaging tests. Once diagnosed, your doctor may use computerized tomography (CT) scan or positron emission tomography (PET) scan to stage your breast cancer and help determine your best course of treatment.
  • Sentinel node biopsy. Your specialist will remove the lymph nodes that would be the first to receive cancer from the breast and check for cancer in the lab. If those lymph nodes are not cancerous, it is not likely you will need to have the rest of your lymph nodes removed.

Breast cancer treatment

Most people who are diagnosed with breast cancer will undergo surgery and sometimes followed by additional treatment, such as radiation, chemotherapy or hormone therapy. In some cases, a person will undergo chemotherapy before undergoing surgery.

Breast cancer surgical options include:

  • Lumpectomy. In this procedure, your oncologic surgeon removes the area of your breast that contains the cancerous cells, while leaving the rest of the healthy breast tissue.
  • Mastectomy. In this procedure, your oncologic surgeon removes all of the breast tissue of the breast that contains the cancerous cells.
  • Axillary lymph node dissection. If your specialist has determined that cancer has spread to your lymph node, they will likely recommend removing them. 
  • Removing both breasts. Women with an increased risk for breast cancer due to genetic factors may consider proactively having both breasts removed. Some women who have had cancer in one breast also have the other breast removed, but this is unusual.

When should I seek care?

If you experience any of these symptoms, start by voicing your concerns and symptoms to your primary care provider. From there, your doctor may suggest seeing an oncologist for more specialized treatment.