October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Approximately one in eight women will develop breast cancer in their lifetime, and breast cancer is the most common cancer among women (not counting skin cancer). In 2011, the most recent year with complete data, 220,097 women and 2,078 men were diagnosed with breast cancer in the U.S. while 40,931 women and 443 men died as a result of breast cancer. Statistics like these illustrate exactly why it’s so important to be proactive about breast cancer detection and to recognize the signs and symptoms so that you can get the most effective treatment possible.
Breast Cancer Screening: The Basics
Screening is done to detect cancer before any symptoms develop. The best way to discover breast cancer early on, when treatment outcomes are better, is to schedule regular mammograms. A mammogram is an X-ray image of the breast, and having regular mammograms can reduce the risk of dying from breast cancer by detecting it early. Starting at age 50, women should have mammograms every two years. If you have a history of breast cancer in your family or if you have any symptoms of breast cancer or changes in your breast, talk to you doctor. He or she may recommend that you begin having mammograms earlier or more frequently.
Other screening tests include clinical breast exams and self-exams. In a clinical breast exam, your doctor will use his or her hands to feel for lumps or other changes in your breasts and the surrounding areas. You can also perform a self-exam to check your own breasts and underarm for lumps, changes in size or shape, or any other signs or symptoms of breast cancer. If you still have menstrual periods, perform the examination a few days after your period has ended. During this time, your breasts are less tender and less lumpy. If you are not menstruating (such as after menopause) breast self-examination should be performed on the same day each month.
Each person is unique, and many women have lumps or fibrous tissue in their breasts that is completely harmless (benign). If you detect changes in your breasts or the surrounding areas, especially your underarm, it may be cause for concern, and you should talk to your doctor. Some of the warning signs of breast cancer include the following:
- New lumps in the breast or underarm
- Irritation, swelling, dimpling, redness, or flaky skin around your nipple or your breast
- Changes in the size, shape, or thickness of the breast or nipple
- Pain in your breast or nipple
- Unusual or unexpected discharge from the nipple, such as blood.
If you notice any of these signs or symptoms, contact your doctor. It’s important to remember that these warning signs can occur in relation to a number of other conditions that are unrelated to cancer.
Unfortunately, some people do not experience any symptoms of breast cancer, which is why it is so important to get screened regularly by scheduling mammograms and by getting to know your own body so that you can detect any worrisome changes.
Breast Cancer Treatment
If you are diagnosed with breast cancer, a number of different treatment options are available depending on the type of cancer you have and how far it has spread. One option for treating breast cancer is surgery, which is an operation where doctors remove cancerous tissue from the body. Chemotherapy is used on its own or as part of a combination treatment method; when you undergo chemotherapy, you are given medicine (sometimes as pills, sometimes as an IV, or sometimes both) to shrink or kill off the cancer. Another treatment, hormonal therapy, is sometimes used to block cancer cells from obtaining the hormones necessary for growth. Biological therapy is used in conjunction with your body’s immune system to help it fight cancer or to help lessen the side effects of other cancer treatments. Radiation therapy is yet another form of treatment for breast cancer that uses focused radiation to kill the cancer.
Once you are diagnosed, your doctor will recommend the best course of action, and you may work with several specialists as you make decisions about and undergo your treatment. In the U.S. today, there are over 2.8 million breast cancer survivors, and if breast cancer is detected early, the survival rate is very good with the advanced treatment techniques that have been developed over the last few decades.
If you have been diagnosed with breast cancer and need to speak to a specialist or if you notice any of the signs or symptoms of breast cancer and want to talk to a doctor, visit or use our “Find a doctor” feature to search for qualified, experienced medical professionals in your area or within a specific practice area. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also offers free or low-cost mammograms for women; you can find out if you qualify here.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2014, September 2). Breast cancer. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/cancer/breast/index.htm