Breast cancer is a cancer that develops in the tissues of the breast. According to the American Cancer Society, 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime. Second to skin cancer, breast cancer is the most common cancer among women in the United States, and it is the second leading cause of cancer death in women, after lung cancer. Although breast cancer is far more prevalent in women, the disease can also affect men.
There are two main types of breast cancer: ductal carcinoma and lobular carcinoma. Ductal carcinoma accounts for the majority of breast cancers and develops in the ducts that carry milk from the breast to the nipple. Lobular carcinoma forms in the milk-producing glands, or lobules, of the breast.
Breast cancer can be invasive or noninvasive. Invasive breast cancer means it has spread from the point of origin to surrounding lymph nodes and tissues in the breast. Noninvasive breast cancer, which is in its early stages and has yet to metastasize, is referred to as "in situ."
Scheduling recommended yearly mammograms and performing monthly self-breast exams are crucial for early detection of breast cancer. Statistics show that 97 percent of women with breast cancer survive if the disease is discovered and treated before it progresses. There are currently more than 2.8 million breast cancer survivors in the U.S.
Breast specialist Dr. Kristi Funk recommends getting a mammogram at age 35, and if that test shows no abnormalities, begin scheduling annual breast screenings at age 40. "Cancers basically double in size every three to four months," Dr. Funk says. "So, if you go two years between mammograms, it's dangerous."
Common signs and symptoms
Since the advent of mammography screening, the majority of breast cancers are found at an early stage, before symptoms present; however, while mammograms are considered the gold standard for breast cancer detection, they may not always provide accurate results, particularly for women with large or dense breasts. The signs and symptoms of breast cancer are not uniform for all women, which is why doctors stress the importance of knowing your breasts so you can notice any changes or abnormalities.
Dr. Lisa says that women who perform the recommended monthly self- breast exams find a whopping 90 percent of all masses. She demonstrates how to do a self-breast exam and emphasizes that early detection saves lives.
Starting in your early 20s, doing a self breast exam is important, Dr. Lisa explains. "Knowing your breasts' architecture, not really looking for breast masses," she says.
With the pads of your fingers, feel around the breasts in a systematic fashion. Begin on the upper breast near the clavicle and go down from the outside of the breast to the inside near the nipple in concentric circles or in an up-and-down and left-to-right pattern.
"Do it right after your period," Dr. Lisa adds, "because that's when your breasts are going to feel less tender and less lumpy bumpy. But breasts are lumpy bumpy. It's knowing your architecture. Any abnormal masses will feel like a pea, a grape, something you can really outline and define the shape to.
"And you should go for your clinical breast exam, meaning the one done by your doctor, once a year," Dr. Lisa says. "But there is that whole year in between. And for breast cancer survivors, it is so key [to have] the follow-up, because if you don't do the follow-up, you're not going to catch cancer coming back, and that's another way to survive, is to catch the cancer coming back."
"If you find a lump in your breast -- no matter how you find it -- get it checked out," Dr. Lisa says.
The Doctors all agree: "Know your breasts!" Be vigilant and see a doctor if there are any changes in them.
The Booby Wall
Rethink Breast Cancer is an organization that has a whimsical and lighthearted take on breast screenings. They created the Booby Wall exhibit to help alleviate the stress of breast exams.
Remember, when it comes to your breasts, a little TLC (Touch, Look and Check) goes a long way!
SonoCiné Breast Cancer Screening
Mammograms are considered the gold standard for breast cancer detection, but for women with large or dense breasts, the X-ray screening does not always provide accurate results.
“Mammography finds most breast cancers, but there’s a subset of women who have dense breasts, and it only finds about half of the cancers,” Dr. Kevin M. Kelly, director of Breast Imaging at the Hall Center, explains. “Ultrasound has been a very good tool at seeing cancers when you know where they are, but it had not been used for finding breast cancers in normal breasts.”
When performed in conjunction with a mammogram, the SonoCiné ultrasound can reveal cancers that may otherwise be missed.
See more cutting-edge breast cancer tests.
Breast Cancer Test
Although the cause of breast cancer is unknown, studies have shown that most cases develop in women who do not have a family history of the disease. Two known risk factors are the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, which, when mutated, can fail to suppress the growth of tumors. Doctors can perform a blood test to detect BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene in both men and women.
"You really need counseling in conjunction with [this test]," Dr. Lisa says. "Because you [may] have a family history or other factors that put you at risk."
Learn more about breast cancer and the BRCA gene.
Learn more about HALO, the new breast pap test.
High-Tech Breast Cancer Treatment
TomoTherapy is a high-tech form of radiation treatment. The procedure is painless and lasts approximately five minutes. Radiation oncologist Dr. Robert Zimmerman demonstrates how targeted radiation treats only selected areas, as opposed to traditional treatments, which indiscriminately expose both healthy and cancerous tissue to radiation and can have debilitating side effects.
"What TomoTherapy does is it really focuses in [on cancer cells or tumors] like a laser beam," Dr. Zimmerman says. "As it rotates around, when it's in a safe position, it delivers some of the radiation. Then, if it gets to a different position where it would have to be going through normal tissue, it may not deliver any. When it gets to another safe position, it delivers some more of the radiation. Because it can come in from any angle, it can decide what the best angles are that would cause the least damage."
Breast Cancer Breakthrough
Surgical breast specialist Dr. Kristi Funk demonstrates a cutting-edge technology used in the fight against breast cancer. See how the targeted radiation device with the SAVI applicator attacks the cancer cells.
• Five breast cancer prevention tips
• Breakthrough treatments for breast cancer
• Benefits of contrast enhanced spectral mammography (CESM)
• Touch-free breast screening
• Christina Applegate on breast cancer awareness
• Controversial study on mammograms