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Frequently Asked Questions About Breast Cancer

  1. Who is at risk of getting breast cancer?

    All women are at some risk of getting breast cancer. The risk increases with age. More than half the women who are diagnosed with breast cancer are 60 years of age or older. Most women who get breast cancer do not have a family history of breast cancer. However, if a woman’s mother, sister or daughter got breast cancer before the age of 50, she could be at higher risk than the average woman.

  2. What are some of the symptoms of breast cancer?

    In its very early stages, there might not be any symptoms. An unusual lump is often the first symptom; a lump can be found by a doctor during a clinical breast exam, by a mammogram or by a woman checking her own breasts. Other symptoms might be a dimpling of the skin on the breast, an inverted (pulled inward) nipple or a rough texture similar to an orange peel. A very late stage of breast cancer could have symptoms such as an enlarged, swollen breast, with a possibility of the tumor coming through the skin.

  3. How is breast cancer diagnosed?

    One of the first steps in finding breast cancer is usually a mammogram. The results of a mammogram can show signs of a tumor. If the doctor thinks the mammogram results are suspicious, he or she can suggest diagnostic exams such as an ultrasound or a biopsy. An ultrasound can often tell the difference between a fluid-filled cyst (usually not cancerous) and a solid tumor. A biopsy, which is when some tissue from the tumor or cyst is removed and examined in a lab, can determine if the woman has cancer. Some biopsies are done with a needle while others are done with surgery.  Women need to be aware that inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) is an aggressive cancer that often is not detected by a mammogram.  Women who observe a rash, dimpling, inversion of the nipple, or redness on the breast should be examined to rule out IBC.  Biopsy and/or MRI may be the best means to detect IBC.

  4. Can breast cancer be prevented?

    Women can make changes in their lives to reduce the chance of getting breast cancer. However, breast cancer is usually not considered truly preventable. The best way to fight breast cancer is to find it early by getting regular mammograms and clinical breast exams. When found at its earliest stage, breast cancer has over a 95 percent five-year survival rate.

    Studies are currently underway to see what behaviors might have an impact on a woman’s risk. Some of these studies are looking at exercise, the use of hormone replacement therapy, diet, alcohol consumption and exposure to pesticides. Other studies will see if medications can reduce the risk of breast cancer in women who have a higher risk than average.

  5. What are some treatment options for people diagnosed with breast cancer?

    Treatment options continue to get better. For women with an early stage of breast cancer, when the tumor is small and confined to the breast, treatment might be a lumpectomy (surgical removal of the tumor), possibly followed by radiation or chemotherapy. Chemotherapy is when medications are given over a period of time to kill off any cancer cells that might be circulating in the body. Sometimes a lumpectomy alone is enough. If the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes under the arm, then those would be surgically removed as well. In later stages, a mastectomy (removal of the breast) would be performed. In these cases, the woman would have some form of chemotherapy and perhaps radiation. Radiation is a type of high-energy X-ray that can kill cancer cells. Radiation doses are now lower and more accurate than just 10 years ago.

Note: The information given above is for educational purposes only. These questions and answers should not replace a discussion with a doctor if you think you might have breast or cervical cancer.


For More Information

Please visit the following resources for more information on breast cancer:

National Cancer Institute: Did you Know? Breast Cancer

National Cancer Institute: Breast Cancer - Patient Version

BCCP Resources

Last Reviewed: 05/08/2018