Breast Cancer: What You Need to Know

Approximately 264,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer each year. It is one of the most common types of cancer among women in the United States.

Here’s what you need to know to protect your breast health.

What is breast cancer?
Your body is always growing new cells. Usually, these cells die when you no longer need them. Cancer is a group of abnormal cells that mutate and grow out of control when your body doesn’t need them. They usually form lumps or masses.

Breast cancer describes any cancer that starts in the breast. It can affect both women and men, although it is rare in men. About 1 out of every 100 breast cancers diagnosed occurs in men.

Where does breast cancer usually begin?
The breast is made up of lobules (breast glands), ducts, fat, tissue, lymph nodes and blood vessels. Cancer can start anywhere in the breast cells, but is most likely to start in the lobules and ducts.

What causes breast cancer?
Experts don’t know exactly what causes breast cancer, but they have identified some risk factors that make you more likely to develop breast cancer.

Some risk factors are things you cannot change, including
• Breast cancer is 100 times more common in women than in men.
• Most women diagnosed with invasive breast cancer are over the age of 50.
• Women with a BRCA gene mutation are more likely to develop breast and ovarian cancer.
• Have dense breast tissue. Dense breast tissue increases your likelihood of developing breast cancer and can make it harder to find tumors on some mammograms.
• Family history. Breast cancer can be hereditary, so if you have a close relative with breast cancer, you are more likely to develop breast cancer.

Does breast cancer hurt?
Breast cancer is usually not painful. If you experience pain or discomfort in your breasts, it is more likely to be caused by your menstrual cycle.

If your breast pain is severe or lasts for more than a few weeks, consult your health care provider. Breast pain is rarely the main symptom of breast cancer, but it can still occur. Your provider will help you determine the cause of your breast pain and how to treat it.

What are the symptoms of breast cancer?
In the early stages, breast cancer may be too small to cause symptoms. This is why breast cancer screening is so important. Catching breast cancer early means it is easier to treat and less likely to spread to other parts of the body.

As breast cancer progresses, it can cause changes in your breasts, such as
• Lumps
• Swelling or thickening
• Nipple discharge
• Dimpled nipples
• Pain, pressure or soreness in the breast
• Reddening or dimpling
• Scaly skin

If you notice any changes in your breasts, seek immediate medical attention.

How can I prevent breast cancer?

You can take the following steps to help prevent breast cancer.
• Exercise regularly
• Maintain a healthy weight
• Avoid or limit alcoholic beverages
• Don’t smoke
• If possible, breastfeed your child
• Weigh the risks of long-term use of hormone replacement therapy and oral contraceptives after menopause with your primary care provider

Having children can also help reduce your risk of breast cancer, especially if you have them before age 30.

The best way to protect your breast health is to have regular checkups, and Sanford Health recommends annual mammograms starting at age 40. These exams are important to detect breast cancer early, when it is most treatable.

Depending on your risk factors, you may need to be screened before age 40. Talk to your doctor about when you should start screening based on your individual risk.