Breast cancer occurs when abnormal breast cells begin to grow uncontrollably. It can happen to anyone, female or male. However, women are more likely to get breast cancer than men. In fact, in the United States, breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in women after skin cancer.
Breast cancers are different from other types of cancer because they can have certain characteristics, such as being influenced by hormones like estrogen or progesterone, or other types of protein. These characteristics can influence how breast cancers are treated.
Risk Factors For Breast Cancer
Even though there is a lot of discussion about the relationship between genes and the risk of breast cancer, most women who are diagnosed with breast cancer – up to 85 percent – do not have a family history of breast cancer.
Risk factors for breast cancer include:
- Being of older age
- Having an early first menstrual period (menarche), having a late first pregnancy, never having been pregnant, or having a late onset of menopause; these all relate to increased lifetime exposure to the estrogen hormone
- Having a family history of breast cancer
- Possessing a gene mutation, such as BRCA1, which confers a 72 percent risk of developing breast cancer within your lifetime
- Being of Ashkenazi Jewish descent
- Having increased breast density
- Previous radiation therapy
- Previous use of a hormonal birth control or other hormonal medications
- Having previously taken the medication diethylstilbestrol (DES)
- Excessively drinking alcohol
- Having a sedentary lifestyle
- Being overweight
Detection and Diagnosis
Breast cancer can be detected in a number of ways. First, a woman may notice changes in her own breast tissue and she may bring them to the attention of her medical provider. Alternatively, a medical provider may perceive a change in a woman’s breast tissue during a clinical breast exam. Breast cancer may also be detected through a screening mammogram.
More about Breast Cancer
Types of Breast Cancer
There are many different types of breast cancer, and a tissue biopsy will help decode which type a patient possesses. The most commonly-diagnosed type of breast cancer is called an “invasive ductal carcinoma,” and it accounts for 70 to 80 percent of all breast cancers, according to the American Cancer Society.
Other, less common, types of breast cancer include the following:
- Invasive lobular carcinoma
- Ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS)
- Paget disease of the breast
- Phyllodes tumor
Stages of Breast Cancer
When a patient is diagnosed with breast cancer, it is classified into a “stage.” The stage of cancer describes how far the breast cancer process has progressed. Staging is very important because it dictates the type of treatments that will be used to manage breast cancer.
Staging uses a simple classification system known as T-N-M. The “T” refers to the nature of the tumor itself, the “N” refers to the number of lymph nodes that the cancer has spread to, if any, and the “M” refers to whether the cancer has metastasized, or spread to areas of the body beyond the lymph nodes.
In breast cancer, other factors are also needed to describe the nature of cancer, including whether or not the cancer cells have estrogen or progesterone receptors, and whether or not the cancer cells make an abundance of a protein called Her2. The cancer will also be graded using a numerical system, in order to classify how many of the cells in a tissue sample appear to be normal versus affected by cancer.
All of this information about a person’s particular cancer process is used to assign a specific stage grouping to the breast cancer.
How to Learn More
You can learn more about breast cancer by visiting the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s breast cancer information page. If you have any concerns about your own breast health, visit our women’s health information page, and make sure to follow up with your medical provider as soon as possible.