Breast Cancer

Breast cancer is the most widely found cancer in U.S. women, next to skin cancer. About one in every seven or eight women gets it in her lifetime. It often forms in the tubes that carry milk to the nipple (ducts) and in glands that make milk (lobules). It happens in both men and women, but breast cancer in men is not common.

Breast cancer can happen in both men and women, but it is found less often in men because their breast cells are less developed.

There are many different risk factors for breast cancer:

  • Age: It has most often been found in women over age 60 and men between age 60 and 70.
  • Family history of breast cancer: Those with a family history of breast, ovarian or colon cancer can be at higher risk.
  • Radiation exposure: People who have been treated with radiation to the chest for diseases like lymphoma are at higher risk.
  • Alcohol and/or Liver Disease: Studies suggest liver disease, such as cirrhosis, and/or heavy alcohol drinking which can affect the liver increases risk for breast cancer.
  • Being overweight: Recent studies have shown that being overweight or obese during adult life increases risk because having more body fat can raise estrogen levels and risk.
  • Exercise: Women who are not physically active throughout life may have a higher risk.
  • Race: Cases of breast cancer in Caucasian women are seen slightly more often than those who are Latina, Asian or African American.
  • Menstrual cycles: Chances are higher for women who had their first period before age 12. There's also a greater risk for those who went through menopause after age 55.
  • Having or not having children: The older a woman is when she has her first child, the greater her chance of breast cancer. Women who never had children are also at higher risk. Pregnant and breastfeeding women have less menstrual cycles and, therefore, have less exposure to hormones produced by their ovaries. Exposure to these hormones, which stimulate cell growth, have been linked to an increase in breast cancer risk.

Testing for Breast Cancer

Early detection and early care is one of the best ways to lower the number of deaths caused by this disease. There are many types of exams and tests used to find breast cancer.

  1. Self-Exam: Set a timetable for a breast self-exam — once a month is recommended. If you are still having periods, the exam may be easier right after your period. Be safe and check with your doctor if you find:
    • A lump, hard knot or thickening inside the breast
    • Swelling, redness or darkening of the breast
    • Skin soreness or dimpling
    • Nipple pain or the nipple turning inward
    • Itchy, scaly sore or rash on the nipple or skin
    • Discharge from the nipple (except when breast feeding)
  2. Clinical breast exam (CBE): This is done as part of your annual physical exam. Your doctor will look at your breasts for shape or size changes and feel for lumps. A CBE should be done at least every three years for women 20 to 40 years old. After 40, women should have a CBE every year.
  3. Mammogram: A mammogram is an X-ray that takes a picture of the inside of the breast. This test may show signs of breast cancer before it can be felt on exam. It can also show whether something found during an exam is likely to be cancer or not. Women over 40 should get this test every other year, though some doctors may order one every year.

If something unusual shows up in a clinical breast exam or screening mammogram, your doctor might do more tests.

Sources: National Cancer Institute, American Cancer Society, Detailed Guide: Breast Cancer in Men, BreastCancer.org, Susan G. Komen for the Cure