Breast Cancer Overview. Symptoms, Types, and Treatments

Breast cancer is a condition that develops when breast cells undergo changes that cause them to grow too quickly. Breast tumors often grow slowly and don’t cause any symptoms at first. This cancer is most often diagnosed through screening exams such as mammograms.

Key takeaways:
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    Breast cancer is a common condition that may not lead to any initial symptoms.
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    While you can’t completely prevent breast cancer, you may be able to reduce your risk by making healthy lifestyle changes.
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    Breast cancer treatments often involve surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. They may also include other medications based on what type of breast cancer you have.
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    This cancer is often detected early, leading to good outcomes.

Breast cancer is one of the most common cancer types for U.S. women. Nearly 288,000 U.S. women are expected to be diagnosed with this condition in 2022. Overall, a woman has about a 13% chance of developing breast cancer within her lifetime.

Who gets breast cancer?

Some factors that are beyond your control can increase your risk of developing breast cancer. For example, the older you get, the greater your chances of having the condition. Additionally, you are more at risk if you have a parent, sibling, or child with breast cancer. Other potential risk factors include inheriting certain gene mutations, having your menstrual period begin before you turn 12 or end after you turn 55, never giving birth, or undergoing radiation treatments in the past.

You have more control over other breast cancer risk factors. To reduce your risk of this disease, try:

  • Getting more physical activity.
  • Limiting how much alcohol you drink.
  • Maintaining a healthy weight, especially once you reach menopause.
  • Avoiding hormone replacement therapy or HRT (treatments for menopause) that contain estrogen and progesterone, or using HRT containing only estrogen if you’ve had a hysterectomy.

Having breast cancer risk factors doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get the disease. Some people with many risk factors never develop cancer, while others will be diagnosed with a breast tumor despite having a low risk. If you are interested in learning more about your risk factors, talk to your doctor.

Breast cancer symptoms

You may not have any symptoms at all when you are first diagnosed with breast cancer.

Sometimes, breast cancer can be detected when it causes signs like:

  • A lump in the breast or armpit.
  • Swelling in part of the breast.
  • Changes in breast shape or size.
  • Changes to the skin of the breast or nipple, including redness, flakiness, or dimpling.
  • Breast or nipple pain.
  • A nipple that starts lying flat or pointing inwards.
  • Blood or other discharge from the nipple.

Other benign (non-cancerous) conditions can also cause lumps or other breast symptoms. If you notice any of these symptoms, talk to your doctor to get properly diagnosed. Your doctor may want you to undergo imaging tests or get a biopsy (have a small piece of breast tissue removed for further study under a microscope).

Types of breast cancer

Most breast cancer falls into one of two categories. Ductal carcinoma develops from cells that make up the breast ducts. Lobular carcinoma starts in the glands that produce milk.

Other types of breast cancer are rare. Paget’s disease of the breast forms in the nipple’s skin cells. Inflammatory breast cancer occurs when cancer cells affect the skin of the breast, leading to redness and swelling.

If you are diagnosed with breast cancer, your doctor will also perform tests on the cancer cells to look for certain genes or proteins. Cancer cells that contain high levels of the HER2 protein (called HER2-positive breast cancer) tend to grow and spread quickly. Hormone receptor-positive or HR-positive cancer cells — cells that contain estrogen receptor (ER), progesterone receptor (PR), or both — are fueled by hormones that make the cancer cells grow.

Treatments for breast cancer

Most breast cancer begins with surgery. You may have a lumpectomy (removal of the tumor and a small amount of nearby healthy tissue) or a mastectomy (removal of all of the breast tissue). Lymph nodes may also be removed during surgery since cancer can spread there first before moving to other locations.

A lumpectomy is often followed by radiation therapy to kill any remaining cancer cells in the breast or lymph nodes. Radiation treatments are also sometimes used after a mastectomy.

You may need chemotherapy before surgery to shrink your tumor to make it easier to take out. You may also need chemotherapy after surgery to kill cancer cells in the breast or other locations.

Certain types of targeted therapy can help treat HER2-positive breast cancer. Other targeted therapy drugs can help treat breast cancer cells that contain certain gene changes.

Hormone therapy may be used to treat HR-positive breast cancer. This treatment decreases hormone levels or prevents hormones from feeding cancer cells.

Immunotherapy is a newer type of treatment that helps your immune system more effectively kill cancer. This treatment may be used for breast cancer that has metastasized to other parts of the body.

Your breast cancer outlook

Breast cancer tends to be caught early, which leads to good outcomes. For people who have their cancer diagnosed before it has spread, 99.1% will live for five years or more, not including death from other causes.

About 3 out of 10 people have breast cancer that has spread to the lymph nodes by the time it is detected. About 86.1% of people in this category will live at least five years. For people who have metastatic breast cancer — cancer that has spread to other parts of the body — the five-year survival rate is 30%.

Breast cancer doesn’t often cause symptoms and is most often discovered through screenings, so make sure to get regular mammograms to help catch any cancer early. Although a breast cancer diagnosis is scary to receive, current treatments work well to treat the condition, and researchers are constantly developing new treatments. Your doctor can help you find the best treatments for your breast cancer type and help you understand what to expect.


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