Breast Cancer is something that affects hundreds of thousands of women each year. Men can also get breast cancer, but it is not as common.
According to the CDC, each year in the United States, about 255,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer, and 42,000 women die. 1 out of every 100 breast cancer diagnosed is a man.
Breast cancer occurs when cells within the breast grow out of control. There are many different types of breast cancer, and the type of breast cancer depends on which cells inside the breast turn into cancer.
The two most common kinds of breast cancer are:
Invasive ductal carcinoma – “The cancer cells begin in the ducts and then grow outside the ducts into other parts of the breast tissue. Invasive cancer cells can also spread, or metastasize, to other parts of the body.”
Invasive lobular carcinoma – “Cancer cells begin in the lobules and then spread from the lobules to the breast tissues that are close by. These invasive cancer cells can also spread to other parts of the body.”
“Breast cancer is a progressive disease that impacts people of all genders and all ages.”
Breast cancer is one of the most common cancers worldwide, claiming the lives of thousands each year.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), In 2020, there were 2.3 million women diagnosed with breast cancer and 685 000 deaths globally. At the end of 2020, 7.8 million women were diagnosed with breast cancer in the past five years, making it the world’s most prevalent cancer. Worldwide, approximately 59% of breast cancers develop in those with no identifiable breast cancer risk factor other than cis women and over 40 years old. In the U.S. alone, there are 3.8 million breast cancer survivors. Roughly 1 in 8 cisgender women (13%) will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime, and 1 in 39 (3%) will die from breast cancer.
“No one knows the exact causes of Breast Cancer.”
While doctors and researchers are still attempting to determine the exact causes of breast cancer, they have discovered factors that can put you more at risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer.
Some factors include:
Doctors estimate that about 5 to 10 percent of breast cancers are connected to gene mutations passed through generations of a family.
“A number of inherited mutated genes that can increase the likelihood of breast cancer have been identified. The most well-known are breast cancer gene 1 (BRCA1) and breast cancer gene 2 (BRCA2), both of which significantly increase the risk of both breast and ovarian cancer.”
If your family has a history of breast cancer or other cancers, your doctor may refer you to a genetic counselor, who can perform a blood test to help identify specific mutations, discuss the benefits, risks, and limitations of genetic testing to assist you in the best possible way with shared decision-making.
A breast cancer risk factor is anything that makes it more likely you’ll get breast cancer. But having one or even several breast cancer risk factors doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll develop breast cancer. Many women who develop breast cancer have no known risk factors other than simply being women.
- Being female. Women are much more likely than men are to develop breast cancer.
- Increasing age. Your risk of breast cancer increases as you age.
- A personal history of breast conditions. If you’ve had a breast biopsy that found lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS) or atypical hyperplasia of the breast, you have an increased risk of breast cancer.
- A personal history of breast cancer. If you’ve had breast cancer in one breast, you have an increased risk of developing cancer in the other breast.
- A family history of breast cancer. If your mother, sister, or daughter was diagnosed with breast cancer, particularly at a young age, your risk of breast cancer is increased. Still, the majority of people diagnosed with breast cancer have no family history of the disease.
- Inherited genes that increase cancer risk. Specific gene mutations that increase the risk of breast cancer can be passed from parents to children. The most well-known gene mutations are referred to as BRCA1 and BRCA2. These genes can significantly increase your risk of breast cancer and other cancers, but they don’t make cancer inevitable.
- Radiation exposure. If you received radiation treatments to your chest as a child or young adult, your risk of breast cancer is increased.
- Obesity. Being obese increases your risk of breast cancer.
- Beginning your period at a younger age. Beginning your period before age 12 increases your risk of breast cancer.
- Beginning menopause at an older age. If you start menopause at an older age, you’re more likely to develop breast cancer.
- Having your first child at an older age. Women who give birth to their first child after age 30 may have an increased risk of breast cancer.
- Having never been pregnant. Women who have never been pregnant have a greater risk of breast cancer than women who have had one or more pregnancies.
- Postmenopausal hormone therapy. Women who take hormone therapy medications that combine estrogen and progesterone to treat the signs and symptoms of menopause have an increased risk of breast cancer. The risk of breast cancer decreases when women stop taking these medications.
- Drinking alcohol. Drinking alcohol increases the risk of breast cancer.
“Different people experience different symptoms, and some people
don’t have any symptoms at all.”
According to the CDC, some possible symptoms for all people include:
- A new lump in the breast, chest, or underarm (armpit) Thickening or swelling of part of the breast or chest
- Irritation or dimpling of breast or chest skin
- Redness or flaky skin in the nipple area or the breast or chest
- Pulling in of the nipple or pain in the nipple area
- Nipple discharge other than breast milk, including blood
- Any change in the size or the shape of the breast
- Pain in any area of the breast or chest
The stage of breast cancer is determined by cancer’s characteristics and is usually expressed through a number scale that goes from 0-4; the lower the number, the less cancer has spread to other parts of the body.
The five stages of breast cancer:
- Stage O: When the disease is localized to the milk ducts and has not spread to the surrounding tissue of the breast. (It is also called non-invasive.)
- Stage 1: When breast cancer is smaller than 2 cm across and hasn’t spread anywhere – including no involvement in the lymph nodes.
- Stage 2: Stage 2 (or Il) is when one of the following:
- The tumor is less than 2 cm across but has spread to the underarm lymph nodes (IIA).
- The tumor is between 2 and 5 cm (with or without spread to the lymph nodes).
- The tumor is larger than 5 cm and has not spread to the lymph nodes under the arm (both IIB).
- Stage 3: Also called “locally advanced breast cancer.” The breast cancer has extended to beyond the immediate region of the tumor and may have invaded nearby lymph nodes and muscles but has not spread to distant organs. This stage is divided into three groups: Stage 3A, Stage 3B, and Stage 3C. The size of the tumor determines the difference and whether cancer has spread to the lymph nodes and surrounding tissue.
- Stage 4: Breast cancer is defined as a tumor, regardless of size, that has spread to areas away from the breast, such as bones, lungs, liver, or brain.
Being familiar with your body is extremely important, especially when it comes to breast cancer. A great way to recognize the signs and symptoms of breast cancer is through self-exams.
Self-exams are very important.
Self-exams should not be done in place of an exam by a healthcare provider. Performing self-exams are done to check for any changes in your breasts or chest but should be done in addition to seeing a doctor. Stanford Health recommends visiting a health care provider for an exam every three years for cis chest, but women in their 20s and 30s and every year for those 40 and older.
Self-exams can be performed every month. If you still menstruate, the best time for a self-exam is when your breasts are least likely to be tender or swollen, for example, a few days after your period ends.
If you no longer menstruate, pick a specific day – such as the first day of each month. If you are taking hormones, talk with your doctor about when to do a self-exam!
Here’s what you should be mindful to look for:
- Breasts are their usual size, shape, and color
- Breasts are evenly shaped without visible distortion or swelling
If you see any of the following changes, bring them to your doctor’s attention: Dimpling, puckering, or bulging of the skin; A nipple that has changed position or an inverted nipple (push inward); Redness, soreness, rash, or swelling.
How to perform a self-exam in 3 easy steps:
Step 1: Stand in front of a large mirror for you to see your breasts clearly. Check each breast for anything unusual. Check the skin for puckering, dimpling, or scaliness. Look for a bloody discharge from the nipples that occurs without nipple stimulation. Watching closely in the mirror, clasp your hands behind your head and press your hands forward.
Step 2: Press your hands firmly on your hips and bend slightly toward the mirror as you pull your shoulders and elbows forward. These steps are meant to check for any change in the shape or contour of your breasts as you move. As you do these steps, you should feel your chest muscles tighten.
Step 3: Lie flat on your back, with one arm over your head and a pillow or folded towel under the shoulder. Use the pads of the fingers of your other hand to check the breast and surrounding area firmly, carefully, and thoroughly. Feel for any unusual lump or mass under the skin. Feel the tissue by pressing your fingers in small, overlapping areas about the size of a dime. To be sure you cover the whole breast, take your time and follow a definite pattern: lines, circles, or wedges.
While early intervention is vital for any disease, the reality is that many people in the U.S. do not have the financial means to visit a doctor, even for preventive care.
If you or anyone you know need care, there are programs in place to help:
The National Breast Cancer Foundation provides free mammograms and diagnostic services for women in need.
The American Cancer Society’s Hope Lodge offers cancer patients and their caregivers a free place to stay when their best hope for effective treatment may be in another city.
The American Cancer Society Road To Recovery program provides transportation to and from treatment for people with cancer who do not have a ride or are unable to drive themselves.
The American Cancer Society support line: 800.227.2345
Cancer Lifeline support: 800.255.5505