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Treating Breast Cancer Early

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Breast Cancer: 10 Things to Know

Doctor William C Lloyd Healthgrades Medical Reviewer
Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Written By Sarah Lewis, PharmD on April 9, 2021
  • close up of African American woman
    Breast Cancer Facts
    When dealing with a serious illness like breast cancer, many people find it empowering to learn as much as they can about the condition—whether it affects them directly or someone they know. With the right information on risk factors, screening, and treatment, you can take action to protect your health.
  • Diverse group of three middle aged woman eating at picnic bench and looking at smartphone photos
    1. Being a woman is the main risk factor.
    Each year in the United States, about 230,000 women—and a small number of men—find out they have breast cancer. Your breast cancer risk is also elevated if you are older, Caucasian, have dense breast tissue or other breast conditions, have a family history or personal history of breast cancer, had early menstruation before age 12, or late menopause after age 55. DES (diethylstilbestrol) exposure and previous chest radiation therapy are risk factors as well. Lifestyle factors, such as being overweight, not exercising, and consuming alcohol, can also increase your risk.
  • Mammogram
    2. Mammogram screening finds most breast cancers before symptoms develop.
    Unfortunately, not all women get recommended annual screening mammograms, and mammograms don’t detect all breast cancers. So it’s important to know the warning signs of breast cancer; the most common symptom is a lump or mass. Also look for any change in the size, shape or appearance of the breast or nipple. This includes swelling of part or all of the breast, skin changes on the breast or nipple, inverted nipple, or nipple discharge that isn’t breast milk.
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  • Microscope
    3. A biopsy is the only way to know for sure if a lump is cancerous.
    If you have a lump or a suspicious area on a screening mammogram, your doctor may recommend a diagnostic mammogram, breast MRI, or breast ultrasound. The results of these tests will guide your next steps. If the results are unclear or suspicious, your doctor may recommend a biopsy. A biopsy removes a small tissue sample to check it for cancer. It is the only way to know for sure if the tissue is cancerous or benign.
  • Middle age Caucasian female doctor smiling at female patient
    4. There are three main types of breast biopsy procedures.
    Breast biopsy techniques include fine needle biopsy, core needle biopsy, and surgical biopsy. Core needle and surgical biopsy are the most common procedures for diagnosing breast cancer. Both can determine whether cancer is present, the type of cancer, and the grade or rate of growth. Only a surgical biopsy can determine the stage of breast cancer. Doctors typically use fine needle biopsy when they suspect a fluid-filled cyst.
  • Japanese doctor talking to patient
    5. Breast cancer can be invasive or non-invasive.
    A surgical biopsy can determine whether the cancer is invasive or non-invasive. Non-invasive breast cancer remains at the site where it first started growing; this is stage 0 breast cancer, the earliest form of breast cancer. Most of these lesions are discovered during mammography. Invasive breast cancer is a tumor whose cells have spread from its initial site to nearby breast tissue. Invasive breast cancer can also spread to lymph nodes and other distant areas of the body. Invasive breast cancer is the more common form of breast cancer; it includes stages I through IV.
  • Hormone receptor
    6. Breast cancer can be hormone receptor-positive or -negative.
    Hormone receptor-positive breast cancer cells have a cell membrane receptor for estrogen (ER+), progesterone (PR+), or both. This means hormones fuel the growth of these tumors, and they will respond to hormone blockers, slowing the growth of the tumor. Most breast cancers are ER+ and more than half have both receptors (ER+ and PR+). A small number are PR+ alone. Hormone receptor-negative breast cancer cells do not have a receptor for either estrogen or progesterone. About 25 to 30% of breast cancers are hormone receptor-negative.
  • Doctor and patient speaking
    7. Breast cancer stages guide treatment decisions.
    There are five stages for breast cancer: 0, I, II, III and IV. Lower stage breast cancers usually have a better outlook because they are more likely to respond to treatment. Higher numbers indicate more invasive disease. The stage of your cancer depends on the size of the tumor, whether it is invasive or non-invasive, and whether it has spread to your lymph nodes or other organs. Once your doctor knows the stage, you and your doctor can develop a treatment plan that is right for you.
  • Doctors talking
    8. Treatment options also depend on the type, grade, and cell marker status.
    The goal of treating breast cancer is to reach a state where there are no signs of cancer in the body. Your doctor looks at a variety of information to determine the best treatment to attain that goal. This includes the cancer type, tumor grade, HER-2 gene status, and hormone receptor status.
  • Team of surgeons in operation room
    9. Surgery is the main treatment for most breast cancers.
    There are two basic types of surgery: lumpectomy and mastectomy. Lumpectomy removes the tumor and some healthy tissue surrounding it. Mastectomy removes the entire breast. The cancer stage will determine how extensive the surgery needs to be. Radiation therapy is usually recommended after lumpectomy. Other treatments include chemotherapy, hormone therapy, and targeted therapy. Targeted therapy uses markers on cells to identify and destroy them. Targeted therapies are an option for hormone-receptor positive tumors or HER-2 positive tumors.
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    10. You can take charge of your breast health.
    You can help prevent breast cancer by changing risk factors that are within your control. This includes maintaining a healthy weight, getting regular exercise, and only drinking alcohol in moderation. However, breast cancer can still occur. Early detection with screening exams offers the best chance at successfully treating breast cancer. Screening exams include regular clinical breast exams and mammograms. For some high-risk women, prevention strategies are available, including chemoprevention using drugs and prophylactic mastectomy to remove the breasts before cancer develops.
Breast Cancer: 10 Things to Know
  1. Biopsy.
  2. Biopsy. National Breast Cancer Foundation.
  3. Breast Cancer: Diagnosis. American Society of Clinical Oncology.
  4. Breast Cancer Prevention and Early Detection. American Cancer Society.
  5. Breast Cancer Staging and Stages. Susan G Komen.
  6. Hormone Receptor Status.
  7. Hormone Therapy for Breast Cancer. American Cancer Society.
  8. Hormone Receptor Status. Susan G Komen.
  9. How Is Breast Cancer Diagnosed? American Cancer Society.
  10. How Is Breast Cancer Diagnosed? American Cancer Society.
  11. How is Breast Cancer Staged? American Cancer Society.
  12. How Is Breast Cancer Treated? American Cancer Society.
  13. How to Read Hormone Receptor Test Results.
  14. Non-Invasive or Invasive Breast Cancer.
  15. Screening and Early Detection. Susan G. Komen.
  16. Stages of Breast Cancer.
  17. Surgery for Breast Cancer. American Cancer Society.
  18. Targeted Therapy for Breast Cancer. American Cancer Society.
  19. Types of Biopsy Procedures. American Cancer Society.
  20. U.S. Breast Cancer Statistics.
  21. Your Biopsy Results. American Cancer Society.
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Last Review Date: 2021 Apr 9
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.