Breast Cancer 101

Here’s what you know about prevention and detection

Photo: Woman in medical gown seated in medical examination room.

What is breast cancer?
As with other cancers, breast cancer is caused by cells that grow out of control and interfere with healthy cells. Cancer cells can damage nearby cells and grow into a tumor. Breast cancer begins in the breast tissue, but it can also spread to nearby lymph nodes and other organs.

What are some signs of breast cancer?
In some cases of breast cancer, a lump can grow in the breast tissue. But not all breast cancers cause a breast lump. Other warning signs of breast cancer include changes in the size or shape of the breast or nipple, pain in the breast or discharge from nipples. Lumps from breast cancer can also grow in the underarm area.

Who gets breast cancer?
Women are more likely to develop breast cancer than men. In the United States each year, more than 200,000 women and nearly 2,500 men are diagnosed with it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Women under age 45 account for about 10% of breast cancers, but most who are diagnosed are age 50 or older. 

What causes breast cancer?
It’s difficult to point to any one thing that causes breast cancer because many factors can raise your risk, according to the CDC. Being female, being older than 50, having the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation, starting your period before age 12 and starting menopause after age 55 are risk factors you can’t change.

What lifestyle changes can reduce breast cancer risk?
Many healthy lifestyle habits can help lower your risk of breast cancer. They also can improve your odds of a good outcome if you face a breast cancer diagnosis. Cancer experts suggest practicing healthy habits such as a diet filled with fruits and vegetables, regular physical activity and avoiding alcohol and cigarettes. It’s also important to make a habit of getting enough sleep. Talk with your doctor about medications you take. Hormone replacement therapy and some types of birth control can increase your risk for breast cancer, so it’s important to discuss using these medicines with your doctor.

When should I do breast self-exams?
Self-checks aren’t recommended as a screening tool to help find breast cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t important. Self-exams help women become familiar with how their breasts normally look and feel, so you can spot and report any changes.

When should I get screened?
A mammogram can detect tiny changes to breast tissue that could later become breast cancer. When breast cancer is found early, treatment is often simpler and the cure rate higher. The American Cancer Society recommends that most women should start annual mammograms at age 45, unless they are in a high-risk group.