Q. What is breast cancer?
Breast Cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the breast. It is considered a heterogeneous disease—differing by individual, age group, and even the kinds of cells within the tumors themselves. Women in the United States get breast cancer more than any other type of cancer except for skin cancer. It is second only to lung cancer as a cause of cancer death in women. Breast cancer has a very good cure rate if diagnosed early and most breast cancers can be treated with a lumpectomy (removal of the lump with some surrounding tissue usually associated with a good cosmetic result) instead of a mastectomy (complete removal of the breast).
Q. What are the risk factors of breast cancer?
While no one knows the exact causes of breast cancer, research has shown that women with certain risk factors are more likely than others to develop the disease. Risk factors include: age, menstrual & reproductive history, and family history. Since half of all women diagnosed are over age 65, it is important to stay up to date on mammograms, especially if you have a family history of breast cancer (particularly a mother or a sister) or a personal history of breast cancer. Have a baseline mammogram at least five years before the age of breast cancer onset in any close relatives, or starting at age 40. See your physician if you notice a new lump or changes in the breast.
Q. What are common signs and symptoms of breast cancer?
The most common sign of breast cancer is a lump in the breast. Other signs and symptoms of breast cancer include: a change in how the breast or nipple feels, a change in how the breast or nipple looks, and nipple discharge. If you experience nipple tenderness or notice a lump or thickening in or near the breast or in the underarm area, seek medical attention immediately. This could mean a change in the size or shape of breast or a nipple that is turned slightly inward. In addition, the skin of the breast, areola or nipple may appear scaly, red or swollen or may have ridges or pitting that resembles the skin of an orange.
Q. Are Mammograms painful?
A mammogram is an x-ray picture of the breast. Screening mammograms are used to check for breast cancer in women who have no signs or symptoms of the disease. Diagnostic mammograms are used to check for breast cancer after a lump or other sign or symptom of the disease has been found. Mammography does compress the breasts and can sometimes cause discomfort. Patients who are sensitive should schedule their mammograms a week after their menstrual cycle so that the breasts are less tender. After the age of 40, you should have a mammogram and a physical exam every year. If any unusual symptoms or changes in your breasts occur before your scheduled visit, do not hesitate to see the doctor immediately.
Q. How often should I do a breast self-exam?
Give yourself a breast self-exam (BSE) at least once a month. Look for any changes in breast tissue, such as changes in size, a lump, dimpling or puckering of the breast, or a discharge from the nipple. If you discover a persistent lump in your breast or any changes in breast tissue, it is very important that you see a physician immediately. Many lumps are benign (or not cancerous), however if your lump is malignant (cancer), the earlier it is treated, the higher the rate of cure will be.
Michael J Burrell, M.D. FACS is a General Surgeon with Indiana University Health Muncie Surgical. For more information, please visit iuhealth.org.