National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which occurs annually throughout October, is dedicated to increasing education and awareness about this deadly disease, the second most common type of cancer in women. While education and awareness are important, many women don’t understand what breast cancer is or how to protect themselves.
What is breast cancer?
Breast cancer occurs when abnormal cells grow in one or both breasts. These cells can invade tissues and form a mass called a tumor. The tumor is malignant (cancerous) if the cells can grow into surrounding tissues. Breast cancer can spread when the cancer cells get into the blood or lymph system and are carried to other parts of the body. Though it occurs almost entirely in women, men can get it, too. The good news is that most people can survive breast cancer if it’s found and treated early. A mammogram, the screening test for breast cancer, can help find breast cancer early when it’s easier to treat.
Breast cancer statistics
In 2014, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention shared these figures for Americans:
- 236,968 women and 2,141 men were diagnosed with breast cancer.
- 41,211 women and 465 men died from breast cancer.
The American Cancer Society’s estimates for breast cancer in the United States in 2017 are:
- About 252,710 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed in women.
- About 40,610 women will die from breast cancer.
Who is at risk?
Doctors are still unsure what causes breast cancer, but there are some risk factors, such as advancing age, genetics, and a family history of breast cancer. In fact, a woman’s risk of developing the disease doubles if she has a first-degree relative — such as a mother, sister, or daughter — who has been diagnosed with the disease, so knowing family history is critical. Lifestyle choices such as being overweight or inactive, smoking, having a poor diet, and drinking alcohol excessively also contribute to a higher risk of developing breast cancer.
What are the symptoms?
Many women with breast cancer unfortunately don’t show any signs or symptoms. Therefore, it’s important to know how your breasts look and feel and to keep up on breast self-examinations. The most common symptom of breast cancer is a new lump or mass in your breast, but other symptoms include:
- A change in the way the breast looks.
- A change in the nipple (turned in or scaly).
- Swelling in the breast.
- Skin irritation and dimpling.
- Fluid that comes out of the nipple.
How is breast cancer diagnosed?
During your normal physical exam, your doctor can check the breast for any changes or lumps. There are also tests that doctors recommend based on age and risk. The three most common screenings are mammograms, clinical breast exams, and breast self-exams.
- A mammogram is an x-ray used to detect and assess changes in the breast.
- A clinical breast exam is an exam by a medical professional who uses his or her hands to feel for lumps or other changes in the breast.
- A breast self-exam is when you check your own breasts for lumps or changes in size and shape.
You and your doctor will ultimately decide what treatment options are best for you. Options include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, hormone therapy, or targeted therapy.
Hearing a diagnosis of breast cancer is life-changing, and many people will react with strong emotions. Often being able to talk to women and men going through the same thing can be a help. The Magee-Womens Breast Cancer Program of UPMC Hillman Cancer Center offers a listing of support groups for cancer patients and their loved ones. You can contact them for assistance at 1-866-MY-MAGEE (696-2433).
American Cancer Society: www.cancer.org/cancer/breast-cancer/about.html
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: www.cdc.gov/cancer/breast/statistics/index.htm
UPMC Patient Education Materials, Healthwise: www.upmc.com/health-library/Pages/HealthwiseIndex.aspx?qid=tv3614