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Patient Education2019-10-18T11:39:31+00:00

USC Breast Center

Patient Education

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)

In the United States, breast cancer is the most common form of cancer in women. Breast cancer forms in the cells of the breasts. Breast cancer occurs when breast cells begin growing abnormally. These cells divide more quickly than healthy cells do and continue to accumulate, forming a lump or mass. The cells may spread (metastasize) through your breast to your lymph nodes or to other parts of your body.

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.

Signs and symptoms of breast cancer can include:

  • 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.

Although it is more commonly seen in women, men can get breast cancer, as well.

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.

Some women with cancer in one breast may choose to have their other healthy breast removed, if they have a high risk of developing cancer in the other breast because of a genetic predisposition or strong family history. However, most women with breast cancer in one breast will never develop cancer in the other one. Breast cancer does not spread from one breast to the other. Discuss your breast cancer risk with your doctor, along with the benefits and risks of this procedure.
Chemotherapy uses medicines to destroy cancer cells. Chemotherapy is sometimes given before surgery in patients with larger breast tumors. The goal is to shrink a tumor to a size that makes it easier to remove with surgery.

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.

Oncoplastic surgery combines surgery to remove cancer in the breast with a plastic surgery procedure. Breast reduction and breast lift procedures can be used to remove the cancer safely, while reshaping the breast.
There are a number of different techniques to reshape and rebuild a breast after breast cancer surgery. These techniques involve either using an implant or your own tissue. One example of using your own tissue is a DIEP flap, which is a minimally invasive technique where skin, fat and blood vessels are taken from the abdomen to rebuild the breast.
Radiation therapy uses X-rays or other high-powered beams of energy to kill cancer cells. Radiation therapy is usually done using a large machine that aims the energy beams at your body (external beam radiation). It can also be done by placing radioactive material inside your body (brachytherapy).

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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