Causes of breast cancer
The exact cause of breast cancer is not known, but we do know that certain factors can increase the risk of cancer. Common risk factors include:
- A family history of breast cancer
- Certain types of hormone therapy after menopause
- Being overweight
- Sedentary lifestyle
- Getting older
Of course many women have some or all of these risk factors and never get breast cancer; some women have no risk factors and still get breast cancer. Cancer is unpredictable. Regular breast exams are the best way to detect breast cancer in its earliest, most curable stages.
Symptoms of breast cancer
Breast cancer may not cause any symptoms or pain in its early stages which is why it’s so important to have a regular physical exam and mammograms at the prescribed time.
See your doctor right away if you notice any changes in your breasts or have any of these symptoms:
- A lump or swelling in the breast or armpit
- Breast pain or tenderness
- A dimple on the breast
- A change in breast size, shape, texture, or temperature
- Reddish, pitted skin (like an orange)
- A change in the nipple
- Unusual nipple discharge
Diagnosing breast cancer
The two most common ways to detect early-stage breast cancer are:
- Mammogram. A breast X-ray that can often detect tumors too small for you to feel.
- Clinical breast exam (CBE). Your doctor carefully feels your breasts and under your arms to check for lumps or other changes.
You play a big part in your breast health too. Many women find a lump or detect changes during a breast self- examination.
If you or your doctor find a lump or notice any breast changes, he or she may order a biopsy to help determine if those changes indicate cancer. Often, they do not, but it’s important to check.
Your eyes and your hands are some of the best tools you have to find changes or lumps that may be a sign of breast cancer. If you find any change in how your breasts look or feel, don’t ignore it. This can be a scary discovery, but if it is cancer you have the advantage of catching it right now, before it progresses. Remember, 4 out of 5 breast lumps are not cancer, but they do need to be checked out. Contact your doctor to schedule a clinical breast examination.
When to do your breast self-exam
- Seven days after your period starts, if you still have periods
- The same day every month, if you no longer have periods
- The same day every month if you’re pregnant
- The same day every month if you’re breastfeeding – examine your breasts after you’ve expressed your milk
- Each time you start a new pack of birth control pills
By examining your breasts at the same time every month you’ll become familiar with how they look and feel. It will soon be easy to spot any changes.
How to do your breast self-exam
- Stand and face a mirror with your arms at your sides. Look for:
- Indented nipples
- Nipple discharge
- Dimpling or puckering of your skin
- Bulging of your skin
- Dry skin patches or rash
- At the mirror, clasp your hands behind your head and press your hands forward to tighten your chest muscles. Turn slightly so you can see each side. Look for the same changes
- At the mirror, press your hands firmly on your hips. Bow slightly toward the mirror and pull your shoulders and elbows forward. Turn slightly so you can see each side. Look for the same changes.
- Lie flat on your back and raise your left arm above your head. Raise your left shoulder with a pillow. Use the pads of two or three fingers of your right hand to draw small circles on your breast no larger than a quarter. Keep your fingers together and in continual contact with your skin as you feel your entire breast and armpit. Be alert to any lump or mass.
- In the same position, rub your fingers vertically from your collarbone to the top of your abdomen, from your armpit to your cleavage. It should take at least 10 to 16 vertical sweeps to properly examine the area.
- In the same position, gently squeeze your nipple and look for a discharge.
- Repeat the same steps to exam your right breast.
Treating breast cancer
Your entire health care team understands that you may feel overwhelmed following diagnosis of breast cancer, but we are here to calm your fears and help you choose a treatment that’s right for you. The most common treatments for breast cancer include:
- To remove just the cancer (lumpectomy)
- To remove the entire breast (mastectomy)
- Radiation therapy
- Hormone therapy
- Targeted therapy
Our promise is to support you and provide compassionate care throughout whatever treatment you choose.
Preventing breast cancer
It would be wonderful to say that there was a way to prevent breast cancer, but that’s something no one can do, although we hope that day comes soon. In the meantime, there are some things you can do to help reduce your risk:
- Enjoy a healthy diet
- Keep active
- Limit alcohol
- Don’t smoke
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Limit the duration and dose of hormone therapy
- If you have a family history of breast cancer, ask your doctor about genetic testing
We understand that a cancer diagnosis may cause you to feel many emotions that might seem overwhelming at first. It’s only natural that you may need some help coping. Be open about reaching out to your family, friends, and counselors for support before, during, and after you go through treatment. Call the American Cancer Society 1-800-227-2345 or visit its website for more information.