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Breast Cancer

Breast cancer is characterized by a malignant tumor (or tumors) found in the tissue of the breast. It is the most common cancer in women and the second leading cause of cancer death in women (exceeded only by lung cancer).

The majority of lumps found in the breast are benign (not cancerous). Benign breast lumps do not spread outside of the breast and they are not life threatening.

Risk Factors

Just being a woman is the main risk factor for breast cancer. While men can also get the disease, it is nearly 100 times more common in women. A woman’s chance of developing breast cancer increases as she ages. Approximately eight out of 10 breast cancers are found in women over age 50. Other major risk factors include:

  1. Genetics: Roughly five to 10 percent of breast cancers are linked to mutations in certain genes. The most common are those of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. Women with changes to these genes have as much as an 80 percent chance of getting breast cancer during their lifetimes. Other gene changes may raise breast cancer risk as well.
  2. Family history: Breast cancer risk is higher among women whose close blood relatives have the disease. The relatives can be from either the mother’s or father’s side of the family. Having a mother, sister, or daughter with breast cancer approximately doubles a woman’s risk.
  3. Personal history: A woman with cancer in one breast has a greater chance of developing a tumor in the other breast or in another part of the same breast. This is different from the first cancer coming back, which is called a recurrence of the cancer.
  4. Radiation: Women who have had radiation treatment to the chest earlier in life have a greatly increased risk of breast cancer.
  5. Hormone replacement therapy (HRT): Long-term use (several years or more) of combined HRT (estrogens together with progesterone) after menopause increases the risk of breast cancer as well as the risk of heart disease, blood clots, and strokes.
  6. Alcohol: Use of alcohol is linked to a slightly increased risk of breast cancer. Women who have one drink a day have a very small increased risk. Those who have two to five drinks daily have about 1.5 times the risk of women who do not drink alcohol.
  7. Diet: Being overweight is linked to a higher risk of breast cancer, especially after menopause and if the weight gain took place during adulthood. Also, the risk seems to be higher if the extra fat is in the waist area.
  8. Early menstruation/late menopause: Women who began having periods early (before 12 years of age) or who went through menopause after the age of 55 have a slightly increased risk of breast cancer.
  9. Pregnancy: Women who have not had children or who had their first child after age 30, have a slightly higher risk of getting breast cancer. While being pregnant more than once and at an early age reduces the risk.
  10. Abnormal breast biopsies: Certain types of abnormal biopsy results can be linked to a slightly higher risk of breast cancer.
  11. Exercise: Regular exercise has been shown to lower the risk of getting breast cancer.

Warning Signs

Women experience a wide range of lumpiness in their breasts and only a small percentage of lumps are malignant. If you are concerned about a lump or experience any of the following symptoms, you should make an appointment with your doctor.

  • A portion of the skin on the breast or underarm swells and has an unusual appearance.
  • Veins on the skin surface become more prominent on one breast.
  • The breast nipple becomes inverted, develops a rash, changes in skin texture, or has a discharge other than breast milk.
  • A depression is found in an area of the breast surface.

Prevention

The American Cancer Society recommends that women age 40 and older have a screening mammogram every year and continue to do so for as long as they are in good health. If you are at increased risk for breast cancer, you should talk with your doctor about the benefits of starting mammography screening at an earlier age. Get in the habit of performing a breast self exam once a month, and make sure you receive a clinical breast exam from your doctor at each annual visit. And exercise regularly—studies show that exercise reduces breast cancer risk.

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