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Breast Cancer FAQ

What are the warning signs of breast cancer?

Technology has made it possible to diagnose and treat breast cancer at its earliest stages. But not all cases are discovered through mammograms.

Some warning signs for breast cancer include:
  • A lump or thickening in the breast or under the arms
  • Swelling, warmth, redness or darkening of the skin
  • A change in the size or shape of the breast
  • Dimpling of the skin
  • An itchy, sore rash on the nipple
  • Nipple discharge that occurs suddenly
  • Pain in one location that doesn’t subside

What are the risk factors for breast cancer?

Some breast cancer risk factors, such as genetics, can’t be changed. But you can take steps to lower your risk. Maintaining an active lifestyle, eating a healthy diet, staying at a healthy weight and avoiding cigarettes can help reduce your risk.

Some of breast cancer’s known risk factors include:

  • Your sex

Being female is the biggest risk factor in developing breast cancer. Less than 1 percent of all breast cancer cases occur in men.

  • Your age

As you age, your risk of developing breast cancer rises. Roughly two-thirds of all breast cancer cases occur in women age 55 or older.

  • Your family

Women with a family history of breast cancer have a greater risk of developing it themselves. If an immediate family member develops it, your risk is doubled.

  • Your genetics

About 5 percent to 10 percent of breast cancer cases are believed to be the result of abnormal genes.

  • Your breast cancer history

If you’ve had a diagnosis of breast cancer, you are three to four times more likely to develop breast cancer again.

  • Your breast density

Women who have more glandular and connective breast tissue relative to fat have a higher risk of breast cancer than women of similar age who have little or no dense breast tissue.

  • Your history of atypical hyperplasia

A woman's risk of developing breast cancer is increased if precancerous tissue called atypical hyperplasia is found during biopsy. 

  • Your number of breast biopsies

Women who've had two or more breast biopsies for noncancerous conditions are at elevated risk for breast cancer. This is because of the conditions themselves, rather than the procedures.

When should I start getting yearly mammograms?

Mammography is still the gold standard for early detection of breast cancer. Many cancer organizations, including the American Cancer Society, recommend that women have annual mammograms beginning at age 40.

Women with a strong family history of breast cancer may want to start earlier.

Mammograms cannot catch all breast cancers, so it’s important for women to have their breasts examined by a healthcare professional on a regular basis and to perform monthly breast self-exams.

What types of breast exams are there?

Along with your regular self-exams, there are several ways to examine breasts for abnormalities, including:

  • Mammogram

A mammogram can detect cancers that would otherwise be missed by self-exams or clinical breast exams.

  • Ultrasound

Ultrasounds use high-frequency sound waves to produce an image of the breast. This painless test is useful in examining the dense breasts of young women and, unlike mammograms, can help distinguish between fluid-filled cysts and tumors.

  • Clinical breast exam

Periodic breast exams performed by a physician are recommended as part of a routine physical. During a clinical exam, your physician will inspect the entire breast and the underarm.

  • Computed tomography (CT)

This type of scan can take multiple X-ray views of the whole body or of a specific area. It can help find abnormalities that may be missed by a mammogram or ultrasound.

  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)

MRIs, which use a magnetic field and pulses of radio energy to create images, are often performed after a traditional mammogram to determine the extent of breast disease. But MRIs also are very effective at detecting breast cancer in dense breast tissue and in women with implants, and are used to assess high-risk patients and those with a family history of breast cancer.

What are the benefits of a breast MRI?

Breast MRIs are highly sensitive and can detect tumors at their earliest stages.

An MRI can screen both breasts at once. It also can help determine the extent of disease, which can indicate how much breast tissue may need to be removed during surgery. 

MRIs are also useful to evaluate potential leakages in patients with breast implants.

Are some people genetically predisposed to breast cancer?

Gene mutations, called BRCA1 and BRCA2, have been found in families where multiple members have been diagnosed with breast and ovarian cancers.

Women carrying either mutation have an 87 percent chance of developing breast cancer and a 44 percent risk of developing ovarian cancer by age 70. These gene mutations can be identified by a blood test.

What can I do if I carry the breast cancer gene mutation?

Women who test positive for the BRCA gene mutations may want to consider undergoing risk-reducing surgery to remove their ovaries and fallopian tubes.

They also may want to consider risk-reducing breast surgery.

Recent studies suggest that these procedures significantly lower the risk of developing breast and ovarian cancers.

What else can I do to reduce my risk for breast cancer?

You can take several steps to reduce your risk, including:
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Get regular exercise
  • Eat a nutritious diet rich in fruits and vegetables
  • Don’t smoke—or quit if you do
  • Limit your alcohol intake
  • Your physician may prescribe medications to reduce your estrogen levels.

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