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Everything You Should Know About Breast Cancer

What every woman should know about breast cancer

Diane Asmussen, RN, BSN, OCN
Clinical Oncology Nurse Specialist , The Finley Hospital

Breast cancer is a major public health challenge -- 184,000+ new cases each year make it one of the most common and feared malignancies for women in the United States. Too often, fear and busy schedules prevent women from staying informed, practicing good breast health, and seeking necessary medical attention. Listed below are nine things every woman should know about breast cancer.

1. Early detection is key

For every woman who dies from breast cancer, there are many that survive the battle. Luck may play a role, but early detection seems to be the key. In fact, the five-year survival rate approaches 97 percent for breast cancers found in the earliest stages. Breast cancer itself is not lethal. The disease kills by metastasizing - or spreading through the lymph system or blood stream to other parts of the body. The optimal screening strategy is an annual breast exam by a clinician, monthly self-exams and regular mammograms beginning at age 40.

2. Diagnosis up/death rate down 

The number of women diagnosed with breast cancer increases by approximately four percent each year. This increase is due in large part to a greater awareness about breast cancer, increased utilization of mammography and improved diagnostic imaging. The good news is the breast cancer death rate is decreasing. Today, seventy-five percent of all women diagnosed with breast cancer are cured.

3. The majority of tumors are benign  

Depending upon the size, location and mammographic appearance of an identified abnormality in the breast, either a surgical or stereotactic (needle) biopsy will be performed. More than 70 percent of biopsies are benign.

4. All women are at risk  

Most women will have one or more risk factors for breast cancer, unfortunately these factors cannot be altered. Overall risk of breast cancer increases with age and many risk factors are hormone-related or estrogen influenced. Risk is higher in women who:

  • Have a personal or family history of breast cancer. 
  • Have had a benign form of breast disease. 
  • Started menstruating at an early age. 
  • Began menopause late in life.
  • Never had children.
  • Gave birth to their first child after age 30.
  • Recently used oral contraceptives.
  • Have taken post-menopausal estrogen for a long period of time.

Additional factors that may be associated with increased risk of breast cancer, such as variation in diet (especially fat intake), pesticide and other chemical exposure, alcohol consumption, induced abortion and physical inactivity continue to be studied. To date, knowledge about risk factors has not translated into practical ways to prevent breast cancer. A woman's best defense is still early detection.

5. Signs and symptoms 

Most breast cancer cases are diagnosed as a result of a symptom, the vast majority of which involve the presence of a painless mass, lump or a thickening in the breast. (The mass is not necessarily painful or tender.) Other less common symptoms include a clear or bloody discharge from a nipple, a retracted nipple, a change in breast contour, and/or any flattening, indentation, redness or pitting of the skin on the breast. If a lump, indentation or other suspicious condition is found in your breast, don't delay seeking medical attention.

6. Cancer treatment is individualized 

Treatment of breast cancer can include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation treatment, hormone therapy or any combination of these. Which treatments a patient receives and in which sequence varies from patient to patient.

7. Three key factors affect long-term survival of breast cancer  

Which plan of treatment a doctor prescribes for breast cancer depends upon the medical situation and patient preferences, but the decision is largely influenced by three main factors: the size of the tumor; whether lymph nodes are involved; and whether the tumor's growth is stimulated in the presence of estrogen. A patient's likelihood of long-term survival is greater if a tumor is found when it is less than one inch in diameter and there are no lymph nodes involved.

8. Seek specialized care  

If you are diagnosed with breast cancer, you will want the most qualified physician and health care team taking care of you. You are more likely to find the experts at a comprehensive cancer center. Look for a center that offers services from diagnosis and treatment to support and rehabilitation.

9. You're not alone 

 Often, fear about body image and what others think causes breast cancer patients to internalize their thoughts and feelings and isolate themselves. The most effective way to overcome this tendency is to share fears, disappointments, and experiences with people who understand. Contact your local cancer center or the American Cancer Society for a listing of support groups.