Breasts: No two are alike. From training bras to breastfeeding to menopause and beyond, breasts show up in some of our most awkward years and change throughout our lives. It’s important to get to know your “girls” at every stage of life in order to protect yourself against breast cancer.
What is breast cancer?
Cancer is a disease in which cells become abnormal and form more cells in an uncontrolled way. With breast cancer, the cancer begins in cells that make up the breasts — usually in the tubes that carry milk to the nipple or the glands that make milk. The cancerous cells form a mass of tissue called a tumor. Sometimes, the cancer spreads to other parts of the body.
According to the American Cancer Society, breast cancer is the most common cancer among American women, except for skin cancers. About one in eight (12%) women in the United States will develop breast cancer during their lifetime. It is the second leading cause of cancer death in women, exceeded only by lung cancer. Breast cancer can be more effectively treated when caught in the earlier stages. Screenings have even been shown to reduce mortality rates. Aside from living a healthy lifestyle, the most important action a woman can take is to follow early detection guidelines.
What are the symptoms?
Thanks to screening, breast cancer often is found before a woman has any physical symptoms. Yet a woman should know how her breasts normally look and feel so that she can report any unusual changes to her doctor. Reasons to call your doctor include:
- New lump in breast or underarm
- Thickening/swelling of part of breast
- Irritation/dimpling of breast skin
- Redness/flaky skin in nipple area or breast
- Pulling in of the nipple or pain in nipple area
- Nipple discharge other than breast milk (including blood)
- Any change in size/shape of breast
- Pain in any area of breast
When should I get screened?
Your doctor or nurse will personalize the timing of the screening tests you need based on many factors. In general, the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force recommends that women start talking to their doctor about mammograms at age 40. Starting at age 50, women should get screened every 2 years until age 74. At age 75, women should ask their provider about continued screening.
Breast cancer screening looks for signs of cancer before a woman has symptoms. Screening can help find breast cancer early, when the chance of successful treatment is best. Two tests are commonly used to screen for breast cancer:
- Clinical Breast Exam (CBE)
- A clinical breast exam is when the doctor looks at and feels the breasts and under the arms for anything unusual, including lumps.
- A mammogram is an x-ray image of the breast. Digital mammograms expose women to a lesser dosage of radiation and are seen to be more accurate in women under the age of 50, women with radiographically dense breasts, and premenopausal women. Diagnostic mammograms are used to check for breast cancer after a lump or other symptoms or signs of breast cancer have been found.
What are the risk factors?
Most women who get breast cancer have no known risk factors besides age. Many women with one or more risk factors never get breast cancer. So it's impossible to know who will actually get breast cancer. Factors that affect a woman's risk of breast cancer include:
- Your risk increases with age. Most women who get breast cancer are older than 50.
- Personal history
- Women who have had breast cancer in one breast are more likely to get it in the other breast.
- Family history
- Having a mother, sister, or daughter who has had breast cancer increases a woman's risk. The risk is higher if her family member got breast cancer before age 40. A woman’s risk also is increased if more than one family member on either her mother’s or father’s side of the family has had breast cancer.
- Certain breast changes that are not cancer
- Women who have certain types of abnormal breast changes have a higher risk. These changes are found during a breast biopsy.
- Dense breast tissue
- Women whose breasts have more dense tissue relative to fatty tissue have a higher risk than women of about the same age who have little or no dense breast tissue.
- Menstrual and reproductive history
- Getting your first menstrual period before age 12 increases breast cancer risk. Reaching menopause after age 55 increases breast cancer risk. Never having children or having children after age 30 also increases risk. Women who have their first baby before age 20 have a lower risk.
- Taking the hormones estrogen and progestin
- Using menopausal hormone therapy containing both estrogen and progestin for more than five years increases breast cancer risk. It's not clear whether estrogen-only therapy affects risk. Using birth control pills may slightly increase the risk of breast cancer in current users, but this risk returns to normal over time.
- Radiation therapy to the chest
- Radiation therapy to the chest for the treatment of cancer increases breast cancer risk. Risk depends on the dose of radiation and age of treatment. The risk is highest for radiation treatment used during puberty.
- Body weight
- The chance of getting breast cancer after menopause is higher in women who are overweight or obese.
- Drinking alcohol
- The more alcohol a woman drinks, the greater her risk of breast cancer.
- Physical activity
- Women who are not physically active throughout life may have an increased risk of breast cancer.
- Women who breastfeed have a lower risk of breast cancer.
- In the United States, white women have the highest breast cancer rates. Yet women of all races get breast cancer. African-American women are more likely to die from breast cancer than white women. One reason is that cancer is often found in African-American women at a later, more advanced stage, when it may be harder to treat.