Each year, about 237,000 women and 2,100 men are diagnosed with breast cancer in the United States. If you or someone you care about has received a breast cancer diagnosis, you may have questions about what it is, who’s at risk and how it’s treated.
Breast cancer frequently asked questions (FAQs)
Breast cancer often begins with cells in the milk-producing ducts, known as invasive ductal carcinoma. Breast cancer may also begin in the glandular tissue, called lobules (invasive lobular carcinoma), or the breast’s other cells or tissue.
- A breast lump or thickening that feels different from the surrounding tissue
- Bloody discharge from the nipple
- Change in the size, shape or appearance of a breast
- Changes to the skin over the breast, such as dimpling
- A newly inverted nipple
- Peeling, scaling or flaking of the pigmented area of skin surrounding the nipple (areola) or breast skin
- Redness or pitting of the skin over the breast
If you find a lump or other change in your breast (even if a recent mammogram was normal), make an appointment with your doctor for prompt evaluation.
Researchers have identified some genetic, hormonal, lifestyle and environmental factors that may increase your risk of breast cancer. Yet, it’s not clear why some people who have no risk factors develop cancer, while others with risk factors never do. It is assumed that breast cancer is caused by a complicated interaction of genetic makeup and environment.
Doctors estimate that 5% to 10% of breast cancers are the result of gene mutations passed through generations of a family. If you have a strong family history of breast cancer or other cancers, your doctor may recommend you see a genetic counselor and have a blood test to help identify issues with the BRCA gene or other genes.
During lumpectomy, also known as breast-sparing surgery or wide local excision, the surgeon removes the tumor and a small margin of surrounding healthy tissue. A lumpectomy is usually performed when tumors are smaller.
A mastectomy is surgery to remove all of your breast tissue. Most mastectomy procedures remove all of the breast tissue — the lobules, ducts, fatty tissue and some skin, including the nipple and areola (simple total mastectomy). In a skin-sparing mastectomy, the skin over the breast is left intact to improve reconstruction and appearance. The nipple may also be spared, depending on the location and size of the tumor.
How you feel while undergoing chemotherapy will depend on the medicines you receive. Common side effects include hair loss, nausea, vomiting, fatigue and an increased risk of developing infection.
Your medical oncologist should have a thorough discussion with you about the short-term and long-term effects of chemotherapy. Sometimes side effects are unavoidable, but other times they can be reduced or prevented with everything from exercise and nutrition to cold caps that prevent hair loss. Your breast cancer health care team can help guide you through the process.
Hormone-blocking therapy is often used to treat breast cancers that are sensitive to hormones. Doctors sometimes refer to these cancers as estrogen receptor–positive (ER-positive) and progesterone receptor–positive (PR-positive) cancers.
Hormone-blocking therapy can be used after surgery or other treatments to decrease the chance of cancer returning. If the cancer has already spread, hormone-blocking therapy may shrink and control it. Hormone-blocking therapy can include:
- Medications that block hormones from attaching to cancer cells, called selective estrogen receptor modulators
- Medications that stop the body from making estrogen after menopause, called aromatase inhibitors
- Medications to stop hormone production in the ovaries (for premenopausal women)
Breast cancer typically develops in one breast. If you’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer, genetic testing can provide information that can help you determine your risk for developing cancer in your other breast in the future. It may also help determine your risk for other cancers. Knowing your genetic risk can influence your choice about the type of breast cancer surgery you want to have.
If you are found to carry genetic mutations in genes like BRCA, you may prefer to have a double (bilateral) mastectomy. Your genetic counselor can evaluate your test results and help you understand your risk and make your final decision. Because the results of genetic testing can play a role in your treatment choices, the ideal time to undergo genetic testing is before you have breast cancer surgery.
Possible side effects of radiation therapy include fatigue, tenderness and skin changes like redness, peeling and firmness in the areas being radiated.
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