Understanding the Signs, Symptoms and Risks of Breast Cancer

Understanding the Signs, Symptoms and Risks of Breast Cancer

In the U.S., breast cancer is considered to be the second most common cancer in women. But did you know that about one out of every 100 cases is diagnosed in men? For this reason, take time to learn the signs and symptoms of breast cancer and talk with your doctor about personalized risk.

What is Breast Cancer?

Simply put, breast cancer is a disease where cells in the breast grow out of control. While it can begin in different parts of the breast, most breast cancers begin in the lobules (glands that produce milk) or ducts (tubes that carry milk) and can be considered invasive, meaning it has the potential to spread throughout the body, or non-invasive.

These most common invasive types of breast cancer are:

  • Invasive lobular carcinoma – Cancer cells spread from the lobules to nearby breast tissues.
  • Invasive ductal carcinoma – Cancer cells grow outside the ducts into other breast tissue areas.

Ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) is non-invasive and considered to be an early stage of breast cancer. Here, cancer cells are present only in the lining of the ducts and have not spread to other breast tissues. If you are diagnosed with DCIS, you are at a higher risk of developing a new breast cancer or having the cancer return at a later date. 

Who is at Risk to Develop Breast Cancer?

Two of the main risk factors for breast cancer include being a woman and age, as most breast cancers are found in women and men who are age 50 or older. Other risk factors may include:

  • Inherited genetic mutations, such as BRCA 1 and BRCA 2
  • Personal or family medical history of breast cancer or breast diseases
  • Past treatment using radiation therapy to the chest or breasts
  • Exposure to diethylstilbestrol (DES), a drug given to pregnant women in the U.S. to prevent miscarriages from 1940-1971
  • Not being physically active
  • Smoking
  • Being overweight or obese (especially after menopause for women)
  • Taking some form of hormone replacement therapy or oral contraceptives

For men, additional factors that can increase the risk for breast cancer are:

  • Klinefelter syndrome, a rare condition that causes men to have an extra X chromosome
  • Injury, swelling or removal of the testicles
  • Liver disease, which can heighten estrogen levels in men

For women, reproductive history, including the start of menstruation/menopause and having the first pregnancy after age 30, drinking more than one alcoholic beverage per day or having dense breasts can increase breast cancer risk.

What are the Signs and Symptoms of Breast Cancer?

While signs and symptoms may vary, and in some cases not appear at all, talk with your doctor if you notice any of the following:

  • A new, hard lump in your breast or underarm
  • Changes in the look, feel, size and shape of your breast
  • Dimples, puckers, bulges or irritation on the outside of your breast
  • Inverted nipple
  • Redness, warmth, swelling or pain in any area of your breast
  • Itching, sores or flaky, scaly skin in breast area
  • Discharge from nipple containing blood

Keep in mind that other medical conditions, such as fibrocystic breast condition and cysts, can cause lumps to appear in breasts, which makes the discovery of a new lump important to discuss with your doctor to determine whether or not you are at risk for breast cancer.

What are Available Screenings for Breast Cancer?

Early detection is always key for treatment. Your doctor may perform a clinical breast exam in the office, which allows him or her to feel for lumps, but the best way to find breast cancer at an early stage is through a mammogram. Women who are at average risk are advised to schedule annual mammograms beginning at the age of 40. Men who may be at risk should discuss screenings with a health care provider, which may include scheduling a mammogram. If you are considered high risk for breast cancer, your doctor may also order Breast Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), which uses magnets and radio waves to take pictures of the breast.

As a best practice, you should be familiar with the normal look and feel of your breasts, and if you notice anything out of the ordinary, connect with your health care provider. Regular breast self-exams, which should not take the place of a mammogram, can be a helpful practice.

How is Breast Cancer Treated?

While dependent on the type of breast cancer and its spread, several treatments are available. If you’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer, talk with your doctor about your options, which may include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, hormone therapy or targeted therapy. Weigh the benefits and risks and make an informed decision based on facts and mutual discussion with your health care provider.