If you or someone you know has been affected by breast cancer, you probably have a lot of questions. Below we’ve assembled answers to some of the most frequently asked questions to help you start learning about the basics of breast cancer. Breast cancer is a very complex disease that scientists are working hard to learn more about every year. You should talk to your doctor for more detailed answers and specialized concerns.
What is breast cancer?
Breast cancer is a disease in which abnormal, cancerous cells form in the breast. These cancer cells are malignant - meaning harmful and having a tendency to spread - and can, if untreated, affect other parts of the body.
Where does breast cancer start?
Breast cancer can start in several places within the breast. The breast area is comprised of lobes, lobules, ducts, lymph nodes, and lymph vessels surrounded by fatty tissue and structural muscles. Cancer most frequently begins in the cells of either the lobules (milk producing glands) or the ducts (passages that drain milk from the lobules). Less commonly, malignant cells will develop in the stroma, the fatty and fibrous tissues surrounding the breast.
Who gets breast cancer?
There is no easy way to predict who will be afflicted with breast cancer, but we do have some information on hereditary breast cancer and breast cancer risk factors.
Hereditary breast cancer means that a genetic abnormality and predisposition to breast cancer is inherited from the patient’s mother or father. People who inherit this genetic abnormality inherit an increased risk of breast cancer. At this time, it is estimated that 5% to 10% of breast cancers are hereditary.
The majority of breast cancer cases are not hereditary, resulting instead from genetic abnormalities that occur due to age or other factors. Below is a list of some known breast cancer risk factors.
- Age: The chances of getting breast cancer increase as age increases.
- Personal History with Breast Cancer: Women who have had cancer in one breast are at an increased risk of developing a separate cancer in the other breast or in a different area of the initially affected breast.
- Amount of Menstrual Periods: Women who began having periods early (before the age of 12) or experienced menopause later (after the age of 55) have a slightly increased risk of breast cancer. These women have been exposed to a greater amount of the hormones estrogen and progesterone because they have had a larger amount of menstrual periods.
- Dense Breast Tissue: Women with dense breast tissue have increased risk for breast cancer because they have more glandular tissue and less fatty tissue.
- Child Bearing at a Later Age or Not at All: Women who give birth to children after the age of 30 or who do not give birth to any children have a slightly higher risk of breast cancer. This may be in part because pregnancies reduce the overall amount of menstrual periods.
- Alcohol Consumption: The ingestion of alcohol is clearly linked to an increased risk of breast cancer. Risk increases with the amount of alcohol consumed.
- Race: White women are more likely to get breast cancer than most other races. African American women are more likely to suffer terminal versions of breast cancer. Asian, Hispanic, and American Indian women have a lower risk of breast cancer.
It is important to note that having one or more risk factors does not mean you will contract breast cancer. Likewise, you may get breast cancer even if you do not have any risk factors. If you think you are at risk for breast cancer, you should consult with your doctor.
What are some signs of breast cancer?
Signs of breast cancer include - but are not limited to - lumps or other visible changes in the breast. If you experience a mass or thickening in or near your breast or underarm area, fluid leakage, a change in skin texture, or a change in breast size or shape you should consult your doctor right away. These symptoms may also be caused by conditions other than breast cancer.
Sometimes, in the early stages of breast cancer, there are no symptoms or visible signs. Screenings administered by medical professionals are the best way to find this type of breast cancer.
How is breast cancer found and diagnosed?
Your doctor may use one or more of the following breast cancer detection methods:
- Physical Exam: an examination of the body to check for external signs of illness
- Mammogram: an X-ray of the breast
- MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging): a procedure that uses magnet and radio waves to produce an internal picture of the breast
- Ultrasound Exam: a procedure that uses high energy sound waves to produce an internal picture of breast tissues
- Biopsy: the removal of suspicious cells or tissues so they can be examined for signs of cancer
If breast cancer is found, further tests will be done to study the cancer cells and diagnose your breast cancer stage. Your treatment options will depend on the results of these tests.
Who should be a part of my breast cancer care team?
If you are diagnosed with breast cancer, you should begin treatment right away. The treatment and reconstruction process can be very complex; it is important to have a trusted team of doctors to advise and care for you every step of the way. Your breast cancer care team should include:
- Surgeon: He or she will perform any necessary biopsies of the breast and the subsequent lumpectomy or mastectomy.
- Pathologist: This doctor will study the tumor to determine the degree of malignancy (stage of breast cancer).
- Medical Oncologist: This specialist administers anticancer drugs and/or chemotherapy.
- Radiation Oncologist: This is a physician who administers radiation therapy.
- Plastic Surgeon: He or she will guide you through the process of breast reconstruction after the cancer has been removed.