One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime. Every year in the United States, 264,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer. To add to that staggering number, nearly 2,400 men annually are also diagnosed with the disease. While cancer can be a frightening diagnosis, we’ve come a long way in our understanding of the illness. Although the disease is still the second leading cause of cancer deaths in women, the overall death rate for breast cancer patients has steadily declined over the years. 

What is breast cancer? Why does one person get the disease while another person doesn’t? Can breast cancer be prevented? In this article, we’ll take the time to answer these questions, taking some of the mystery out of this serious and potentially deadly illness.

What Is Breast Cancer?

A provider examines a diagnostic image of a breast, looking for signs of breast cancerCancer occurs when breast cells in our body reproduce uncontrollably, replicating at abnormally high rates. As the name suggests, breast cancer is when these abnormal cell growths occur in breast tissue.

Understanding the anatomy of the human breast will help shed light on how and where this disease occurs in our bodies. The breast consists of the following parts:

  • Lobules (milk-producing glands)
  • Ducts (tubes that carry milk to the nipple)
  • Connective Tissue, fat, and ligaments (the tissue surrounding the lobules and ducts)

Breast cancer typically starts in the ducts or lobules, spreading from these areas to other parts of the body.

The two most common forms of breast cancer include:

  • Invasive Ductal Carcinoma (begins in the ducts and spreads to the rest of the breast tissue)
  • Invasive Lobular Carcinoma (begins in the lobules and spreads into the connective tissue)

There are also less common forms of the disease, such as inflammatory breast cancer or Paget’s disease. When you hear the term “metastasized” used to describe breast cancer, it means the disease has spread to other parts of the body.

What Causes Breast Cancer?

Provider examines a patient for breast cancer with a sonogram wandBreast cancer begins when cells in the breast replicate uncontrollably, exceeding the growth rate of normal cells. As they reproduce, these cells form masses or tumors that can spread to other parts of the body. 

While we know there are genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors that put one at a higher risk of breast cancer, there is no exact or traceable cause of breast cancer. No one knows why some people with no risk factors develop breast cancer and then others with risk factors do not. 

We know that people carrying mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes are at a higher risk for the disease, yet some of these women never get breast cancer. Only 5-10% of breast cancers have a genetic link. 

We know that some breast cancers can be hormone sensitive but we don’t fully know the role that taking hormones may have. 

Factors that are thought to increase the risk of breast cancer include:

  • Age – women over 50 years old
  • A family history of breast cancer
  • Dense breasts (more connective than fatty tissue)
  • Radiation therapy to chest or breast (usually for other cancer)
  • Menstruation before age 12
  • Entering menopause after age 55

These risk factors do not guarantee that someone will develop breast cancer. However, knowing if you are at a higher risk for the disease can help you take action, either by making lifestyle changes or seeking regular cancer screens from your doctor.

What Are the Warning Signs of Breast Cancer?

A group of women stand arm in armIn some cases, individuals with breast cancer develop physical symptoms and signs that indicate the growth of cancerous cells:

  • A lump in the breast or in the armpit
  • Dimpling or irritation of the skin
  • Bloody discharge from the nipple 
  • Nipple inversion, where the nipple turns inward
  • Pain in the breast or nipple
  • Red or flaky skin on the nipple or breast
  • Size changes in the breast
  • Swelling or thickening of the breast

Keep in mind that the majority of breast lumps are not cancerous and that many of these symptoms can occur for other reasons. However, if you notice any of these symptoms, give yourself some peace of mind and go see your doctor for evaluation.

How Is Breast Cancer Treated?

An imaging specialist examines a diagnostic image for breast cancerThankfully, there are many effective forms of breast cancer therapy. How breast cancer is treated will differ between individuals and will depend on the stage of the disease as well as the treatment goals.

Common forms of breast cancer treatment include:

  • Lumpectomy – the removal of the tumor from the breast
  • Mastectomy – removal of the entire breast 
  • Chemotherapy – the use of medicines to kill cancer cells
  • Hormone Therapy – use of hormone blockers to treat hormone-sensitive cancers
  • Immunotherapy – bolstering the body’s immune system to fight cancer
  • Radiation Therapy – the use of energy beams to kill cancer cells

In many instances, combinations of these therapies are used to treat and prevent the spread of breast cancer.

Can I Prevent Breast Cancer?

women wear pink ribbons in support of breast cancer researchCertain risk factors associated with breast cancer cannot be changed or avoided, especially if they are genetic. However, individuals can make lifestyle changes that can  lower their chances of developing breast cancer. 

For example, you can lessen your risk of breast cancer by:

  • Undergoing recommended  breast cancer screening with mammograms
  • Breastfeeding your children, if possible
  • Drinking less alcohol and eating healthy
  • Staying physically active 
  • Maintaining ideal body weight especially after menopause

Regular self breast exams can help in early detection of breast cancer. It is important to know how your breasts look and feel normally so you can identify changes in your breast. Changes to look for include the following:

  • Strange lumps
  • Discolorations
  • Bloody discharge from the nipple 
  • Nipple inversion
  • Skin dimpling

Incorporating self breast exams into your routine by performing a breast exam about once a month can help you maintain your health by alerting you to any of the changes we listed above. 

Women should also receive annual breast exams, where your doctor will perform a breast exam. This is a routine part of your annual wellness visit  for women over a certain age. In addition, doctors also recommend mammograms as an important screening tool to detect breast cancer before it spreads.

What Is a Mammogram?

A provider assists a woman during a mammogramA mammogram is a test used to screen for breast cancer. It involves taking an X-ray of the breast to examine the tissue within the breast, which can indicate early-stage breast cancer. 

Mammograms are so precise that doctors can spot cancer up to three years before a lump or mass forms or is felt on exam.  The procedure is simple and quick, requiring patients to stand in front of a specialized X-ray machine while the clinician takes pictures of the inside of each breast from multiple angles. A radiologist will then review the pictures for early signs of cancer.

How often you should receive a mammogram will depend on your age and individual risk factors. 

We recommend all women 40 years of age and older get a yearly mammogram. 

Women First of Louisville conveniently offers 3D tomosynthesis (TOMO)  mammography with your yearly annual well woman visit.  Access personalized care with one of our specialists today by filling out our online form for an appointment or by calling us at 502-891-8788.

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Your annual women’s health appointment is a vital part of your health care, and the perfect time to talk to your Care Team about your personal health questions.

Is it Time to Schedule Your Annual Wellness Exam?