No one is immune to the threat of breast cancer. Early detection is still the best defense against this disease, and methods of detection are simple: monthly breast self-examination, yearly breast examination by your health care provider, and screening mammograms.
It is not always possible to prevent breast cancer, but you can take an active role in prevention and cure by practicing healthy habits as detailed below. With early detection, the 5-year survival rate is as high as 98%.
What is breast cancer?
Breast cancer is a tumor that forms when malignant cells begin to grow in breast tissue. Sometimes the malignancy can spread to other parts of the body.
How is breast cancer detected?
It can take many months for a tumor to grow. Mammography can detect a tumor that is very small. Larger tumors can be felt during breast self-examinations and breast examinations by health care professionals.
What are the statistics?
Both men and women can develop breast cancer. Nearly 200,000 women are diagnosed every year, and 40,000 do not survive. 1700 men are diagnosed, and 450 do not survive. Half of women who are diagnosed are over age 65.
Who is at highest risk?
There are two types of risk factors — you cannot change some of them, but you can change others!
Risk factors that you cannot change:
- Early menstruation
- Late menopause
- First pregnancy at an advanced age
- Never having children
- A family history of breast cancer, especially a mother or sister
- A personal history of breast cancer or non-cancer breast disease
- Dense breast tissue (which can be detected by a mammogram)
- Past radiation therapy to the breast or chest area
- A history of hormone treatments (estrogen and progesterone)
- Gene changes, including BRCA1, BRCA2, and other
- Being age 65 or older
Risk factors that you can change:
- Being overweight
- Leading a sedentary life with little or no physical activity
- Consuming a diet high in saturated fat
- Consuming more than two alcoholic drinks per day
- Choosing not to breastfeed
- Taking hormone replacement therapy (HRT)*
*HRT is long-term use of estrogens with progesterone to reduce or eliminate menopause symptoms. HRT slightly increases the risk for breast cancer. Talk to your health care professional about non-hormonal therapies. If you feel that the benefits of HRT outweigh the risk, plan on a temporary regimen of the lowest dose that is effective for your symptoms.
While gender, age, and family history are the most significant risk factors, it is prudent to eliminate or reduce other risk factors as well, especially as doing so will be beneficial to overall health and well-being.
What are the signs and symptoms of breast cancer?
The early stages of breast cancer may show no symptoms at all, which is why early detection strategies are so important.
An enlarged tumor can produce a number of symptoms:
- A lump or thickened area in the breast or under the arm
- A change in the size or shape of the breast
- Nipple discharge
- A nipple turning inward
- Redness or scaling of the breast skin or the nipple
- Ridges or pitting of the breast skin
These symptoms are not conclusive evidence of breast cancer; they can be the result of other conditions. However, you should see your health care professional immediately if you experience any of them.
How do we screen for breast cancer?
Monthly breast self-examination (BSE):
Nearly 40% of all cancers are found through BSE. Women should begin monthly BSE at the age of 20. It is easy to detect changes when you are very familiar with the normal shape, size, and feel of your breasts.
Examine your breasts the same time every month. If you are menstruating, the best time to do the exam is a few days after your period ends, when your hormone level causes any swelling to decrease. If you are not menstruating, just do the exam on the same day every month.
Call your health care professional immediately if you feel a difference of any kind during the exam.
Here are several ways to do a breast self-examination:
- In the shower: stand with your right hand behind your head. With the fingers of your left hand flat, gently press every part of your right breast. Feel for any changes in your breast, particularly a lump, hard knot, or thickening. Repeat the process for the other breast.
- Before a mirror: stand with your arms at your sides, then raise your arms high over your head. Put your palms on your hips and press them in until your chest muscles flex. With each position, Feel for changes in the contours of your breasts, swelling, dimpling of the skin, and changes in the nipples. Few women have perfectly matched breasts!
- Lying down: place a pillow under your right shoulder and put your right arm behind your head. With fingers of your left hand flat, using light, medium, and firm pressure, press down over the entire surface of your right breast gently in small, circular motions. Again feel for any changes in your breast, particularly a lump, hard knot, or thickening. Gently squeeze the nipple to check for discharge and lumps. Repeat the process for the other breast.
Yearly examinations by your health care professional:
Your health care professional will examine your breasts during your yearly physical. This should never take the place of your own monthly exam. Take advantage of this opportunity to ask questions and learn more about breast health.
A mammogram is an x-ray image of your breast used for screening and/or diagnosis. Over the years, early detection through mammography has significantly reduced the number of breast cancer deaths.
The x-ray image is made when the breast is flattened, or spread out, between two firm surfaces. Differences in tissue densities show prominently in the x-ray.
Screening mammography doesn’t detect all cancers. Some may be too small or in an area that is difficult to x-ray; for example, the armpit. This is why breast self-examination is still a critically important part of your early detection plan.
Not all differences in tissue density are indications of cancer. You shouldn’t be alarmed if you are called back for additional mammography or ultrasound testing. This additional testing is sometimes needed to better define a questionable area of the original mammogram; it does not mean a cancer has been discovered.
If you don’t have medical insurance, or have limited coverage, there are programs available that can cover the cost of mammography, or at least cover part of the cost. Your health care provider can give you more information.
For more information, visit these websites:
This website helps women and their loved ones make sense of the complex medical information and personal issues related to breast cancer, so they can make the best decisions for themselves.
- Susan G. Komen for the Cure
This website provides information on grants and funding to help eradicate breast cancer. You also will find interactive educational tools and much more.
- National Breast Cancer Foundation, Inc.
This foundation aims to increase awareness about breast cancer through education. They also provide mammograms for those in need, and more.
- Breast Cancer Network of Strength
This website provides information and support in Spanish and English to those touched by breast cancer. Their mission is to provide information, empowerment, and peer support.
- National Cancer Institute
This website provides information about breast cancer treatment, prevention, genetics, causes, screening, clinical trials, research and statistics.
- American Cancer Society
This website provides information regarding all types of cancer, cancer prevention, guidelines for screening, support networks, and cancer education.