Breast Cancer

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What is breast cancer?

Breast cancer is a type of cancer that occurs when there is an uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells in the breast. Breast cancer can spread, or metastasize to other parts of the body. Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women after skin cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Source: CDC).

Less frequently, breast cancer can occur in men. When doctors diagnose breast cancer in an early stage of growth, treatment is often successful and breast cancer survival rate  is high. The prognosis for later stages of breast cancer  is improving with ever more advanced and targeted treatments, but breast cancer screening with mammograms at age 40 and older is key to an early diagnosis and cure.

Prognosis of breast cancer depends on the type of breast cancer and the stage of advancement; your age, medical history, and coexisting conditions or diseases; and available treatments.

What are the symptoms of breast cancer?

The hallmark symptom of breast cancer is a breast lump, but many women do not detect a lump or experience symptoms in early stages of breast cancer.

A breast lump that is malignant is generally not painful, but pain can occur in some cases. There are a variety of causes of breast lumps, such as fibrocystic breasts or breast cysts. However, a doctor should evaluate any type of breast lump for possible breast cancer.

A malignant breast lump can occur by itself, or there may be other symptoms as well. Symptoms of breast cancer include:

  • Breast deformity or misshapen breast

  • Breast lump

  • Breast pain

  • Change in the look and feel of the skin of the breast, such as dimpling or puckering

  • Change in the size, shape or appearance of the breast

  • New onset of inverted nipple

  • Nipple discharge or tenderness

  • Rash or sore on the breast or nipple

  • Swelling of one arm

  • Weight loss

What causes breast cancer?

The underlying cause of breast cancer is currently not known. However, it is believed that some cases of breast cancer are genetic and may be linked to certain defects of genes called BRCA1 and BRCA2.

Normally, cells in the breast that are old or damaged will stop reproducing and die. These cells are replaced by healthy young cells. Breast cancer occurs when old or damaged cells divide and multiply uncontrollably. This results in the development of a malignant mass of tissue (tumor) in the breast.

If left untreated, breast cancer cells can continue to multiply, spread to other parts of the body, and interfere with more of the body’s vital processes.

What are the risk factors for breast cancer?

There are many factors that are thought to increase your chances of developing cancer, including breast cancer. It’s important to remember that not all people with risk factors will develop breast cancer.

Risk factors for breast cancer include:

  • Beginning menstruation before age 12

  • Being older than 50 years of age

  • Caucasian race

  • Drinking more than one to two alcoholic drinks per day

  • Elevated estrogen levels in your body

  • Exposure to high doses of radiation, such as from radiation therapy in the chest area

  • Going through menopause after age 55

  • Having certain defects of BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes

  • Increased height

  • Never having children or having a first child after age 30

  • Obesity (in postmenopausal women)

  • Personal or family history of breast cancer

  • Taking drugs that contain the hormone estrogen

  • Having taken diethylstilbestrol (DES), a drug prescribed in the 1940s–1960s to prevent miscarriage

Reducing your risk of breast cancer

You may be able to lower your risk of breast cancer by:

  • Eating a diet that is low in fat and salty and smoked foods, and high in fiber and fruits and vegetables

  • Maintaining a healthy weight

  • Not drinking alcohol or limiting alcohol intake to one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men

  • If breast cancer runs in your family, consider genetic testing for breast cancer mutations and explore prevention strategies

How is breast cancer treated?

Treatment of breast cancer begins with seeking regular medical care throughout your life. Regular medical care allows a health care professional to best evaluate your risks of developing breast cancer, perform breast exams, recommend screening mammography, and promptly order diagnostic testing for such symptoms as a breast lump or changes in the breast. These measures greatly increase your chances of detecting breast cancer in its earliest, most curable stage.

The goal of breast cancer treatment is to permanently cure the cancer or to bring about a complete remission of the disease. Remission means that there is no longer any sign of the disease in the body, although it may recur or relapse later.

Breast cancer treatment plans use a multifaceted approach that is individualized to the type of breast cancer and stage of advancement; your age, medical history, and coexisting diseases or conditions; and other factors.

Breast cancer treatment may include a combination of:

  • Chemotherapy

  • Dietary counseling to help people with cancer maintain their strength and nutritional status

  • Hormone therapy to block the effects of estrogen for certain types of breast cancer that are stimulated by estrogen

  • Immunotherapy to stimulate the body’s ability to target and fight off cancer cells

  • Lumpectomy to remove a cancerous breast lump in early stage cancer while leaving the rest of the breast intact

  • Mastectomy to remove part or all of the affected breast, which may include removal of nearby lymph nodes and part of the chest muscles

  • Pain medications

  • Palliative cancer care to improve the overall quality of life for families and patients with serious diseases

  • Participation in a clinical trial to test promising new therapies and treatments for breast cancer

  • Physical therapy to help strengthen the body, increase alertness, reduce fatigue, and improve functional ability during and after cancer treatment

  • Radiation therapy

  • Targeted therapy drugs to kill specific types of breast cancer cells with little damage to healthy cells

Complementary treatments

Some complementary treatments can help people to better deal with breast cancer and its treatments. These treatments, sometimes referred to as alternative therapies, are used in conjunction with traditional medical treatments. Complementary treatments are not meant to substitute for traditional medical care. Be sure to notify your doctor if you are taking nutritional supplements or homeopathic (nonprescription) remedies as they may interact with the prescribed medical therapy.

Complementary treatments may include:

  • Acupuncture

  • Massage therapy

  • Nutritional dietary supplements, herbal remedies, tea beverages, and similar products

  • Yoga

Hospice care

In cases in which breast cancer has progressed to an advanced stage and is not responding to treatment, the goal of treatment shifts away from curing the disease. Hospice care helps people in their last phases of an incurable disease to live as fully and comfortably as possible. Hospice care involves medically controlling pain and other symptoms. Hospice nurses and volunteers provide psychological and spiritual support as well as services to support the patient’s family.

What are the potential complications of breast cancer?

Complications of breast cancer are caused by a rapid growth of abnormal cells. These cells can travel through the bloodstream and lymphatic system to other areas of the body, most often the bones, lungs and liver. There they can multiply rapidly and develop new malignant tumors that interfere with normal organ function.

Complications of breast cancer metastasis include:

You can best treat breast cancer and lower your risk of complications by following the treatment plan that you and your healthcare team design specifically for you.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Aug 21
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. Breast Cancer Statistics. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  2. The goals of chemotherapy. American Cancer Society.
  3. Rizzolo P, Silvestri V, Falchetti M, et al. Inherited and acquired alterations in development of breast cancer. Appl Clin Genet. 2011;4:145–158.