FAQ - Breast Cancer Alliance


Why is early detection a women’s best defense against breast cancer?

If detected early, breast cancer can often be treated effectively with surgery that preserves the breast. Five-year survival after treatment for localized breast cancer is 96.3%. (Source: National Cancer Institute)

How many women get breast cancer?

In 2010, an estimated 207,090 women in the United States will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer. Approximately 39,840 women will die from breast cancer this year. Men also get breast cancer but it is rare: in 2010, an estimated 1,500 new cases of breast cancer will be diagnosed in men. (Source: American Cancer Society)

What are the signs and symptoms of breast cancer?

  • An abnormality that shows up on a mammogram before physical symptoms develop.
  • A lump in the breast.
  • A thickening, swelling, distortion or tenderness in the breast.
  • Skin irritation or dimpling in the breast.
  • Nipple pain, scaliness or retraction.

Note: breast pain is very commonly due to benign conditions and is not usually the first symptom of breast cancer. (Source: National Cancer Institute)

What are the guidelines women should follow regarding breast health?

Women should follow these 3 steps to good breast health:

  • Perform monthly breast self-exams, starting at age 20.
  • Have a clinical breast exam at least every 3 years (annually after 40).
  • Have annual screening mammograms beginning at age 40, earlier if you have a family history of breast cancer or other concerns about your personal risk.

(Source: American Cancer Society)

What causes breast cancer?

Breast cancer starts from the mutation of a single cell in the breast. Several mutations are thought to be necessary over a span of a number of years before the cell is in the mode of uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells we call cancer. It is hard to believe, but at the time of diagnosis, most women have probably had their breast cancer for five to eight years. The rate of division and rapidity of growth varies and unchecked, breast cancer can eventually form a mass (tumor) and spread to other parts of the body via the blood and lymph system.

Only about 5-10% of all breast cancers are inherited. Children can inherit an altered breast cancer susceptibility gene from either their mother or father. Most women—about 80%—who get breast cancer do not have a sister or mother who has breast cancer. While all breast cancer is genetic in origin, most of it is not inherited. (Sources:: The Breast Cancer Survival Manual by Dr. John Link, American Cancer Society)

What are the risk factors for developing breast cancer?

In most cases, doctors cannot explain why a woman develops breast cancer. Studies show that most women who develop breast cancer have none of the risk factors listed below, other than the risk that comes with growing older. Also, most women with known risk factors do not get breast cancer. Scientists are conducting research into the causes of breast cancer to learn more about risk factors and ways of preventing this disease. Risk factors are:

  • Age. The risk of breast cancer increases with age. About 77% of women with breast cancer are over age 50 at the time of diagnosis. Women aged 20 to 29 account for only 0.3 percent of breast cancer cases.
  • Personal history of breast cancer. Women who have had breast cancer face an increased risk of getting breast cancer again.
  • Genetic alterations. Changes in certain genes (BRCA1, BRCA2, and others) make women more susceptible to breast cancer. In families in which many women have had the disease, gene testing can show whether a woman has specific genetic changes known to increase the susceptibility to breast cancer. Doctors may suggest ways to try to delay or prevent breast cancer, or improve the detection of breast cancer in women who have the genetic alterations.
  • Family history. A woman’s risk for developing breast cancer increases if her mother, sister, daughter, or two or more other close relatives, such as cousins, have a history of breast cancer, especially at a young age.
  • Alcohol. Many studies indicate that consumption of alcohol leads to a higher risk of breast cancer. An American Cancer Society Cancer Prevention Study reported that “less than one drink a day on average increased a postmenopausal woman’s chances of dying from breast cancer by 30% compared to women who did not consume any alcohol.” Such research is ongoing. In the meantime, women who are concerned about alcohol consumption and breast cancer risk should discuss the issue with their doctors.
  • Obesity and high-fat diets. Obesity is associated with an increased risk of developing breast cancer, especially for postmenopausal women. The American Cancer Society recently published results from a 16-year study that links excess body weight to increased risk for many cancers. Among its findings are: “the risk of death from breast cancer is 34 percent higher in women with a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 25-30; 63 percent higher in those with a BMI of 30 to 35; 70 percent higher in those with a BMI of 35 to 40; and more than twice as high in those with a BMI of over 40.” The ACS study also notes that overweight people produce certain hormones, including estrogen, insulin and insulin-like Growth Factor1 that can stimulate cancer growth. The ACS, along with many doctors, recommends a balanced diet and regular, moderate exercise as a good way to reduce obesity-related risks.
  • Breast conditions. A diagnosis of atypical hyperplasia or lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS) or having had two or more breast biopsies for other benign conditions is linked to higher incidence of breast cancer.
  • Breast density. Women age 45 and older whose mammograms show at least 75 percent dense tissue are at increased risk. Dense breasts contain many glands and ligaments, which makes breast tumors difficult to “see,” and the dense tissue itself is associated with an increased chance of developing breast cancer.
  • Radiation therapy. Women whose breasts were exposed to radiation during their childhood, such as those who were treated with radiation for Hodgkin’s disease, are at an increased risk for developing breast cancer throughout their lives. Studies show that the younger a woman was when she received her treatment, the higher her risk for developing breast cancer later in life.
  • Late childbearing. Women who had their first child after the age of 30 have a greater chance of developing breast cancer than women who had their children at a younger age.
  • Estrogen. Also at a somewhat increased risk for developing breast cancer are women who started menstruating at an early age (before age 12), experienced menopause late (after age 55), never had children, or took hormone replacement therapy or birth control pills for long periods of time. Each of these factors increases the amount of time a woman’s body is exposed to estrogen. The longer this exposure, the more likely she is to develop breast cancer. (Source: National Cancer Institute)

Are there things I can do to reduce my risk of breast cancer?

The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) recommends nine diet and lifestyle guidelines.

  • Don’t smoke
  • Maintain a maximum body mass index of 25 and limit weight gain to no more than 11 pounds after age 18
  • Engage in daily moderate and weekly vigorous physical activity
  • Eat five or more servings of vegetables and fruits each day
  • Eat seven or more portions of complex carbohydrates such as whole grains and cereals each day and limit processed foods and refined sugar.
  • Limit alcoholic drinks to one drink a day for women
  • Limit red meat to about three ounces daily
  • Limit intake of fatty foods, particularly those of animal origin
  • Limit intake of salted foods and use of salt in cooking

A high-risk woman who has a strong family history of breast cancer may wish to consult a genetic counselor about testing for breast cancer genes, and surgical and chemopreventative measures.

Check Your Breasts Using These Steps:

Lying Down:
Place a pillow under your right shoulder. Put your right hand under your head. Check your entire breast area with the finger pads of your left hand.
Use small circles and follow an up-and-down pattern. Use light, medium, and firm pressure over each area of your breast. Gently squeeze the nipple for any discharge. Repeat these steps on your left breast.
Before a Mirror:
Check for any changes in the shape or look of your breasts. Note any skin or nipple changes such as dimpling or nipple discharge.
Inspect your breasts in four steps: arms at sides, arms overhead, hands on hips pressing firmly to flex chest muscles, and bending forward.
In the Shower:
Raise your right arm. With soapy hands and fingers flat, check your right breast. Use the method described in the “Lying Down” step. Repeat on your left breast.

What do I do if I find a lump?

Over 80% of breast lumps are benign, but any breast lump must be evaluated by a physician. Follow-up biopsy is often recommended. See your health care provider. Mammography is a safe and effective screening tool, finding most breast cancers before they can be felt. But it is important to be examined regularly by your health care provider and perform monthly breast self-examination, following-up on any physical symptoms even if a mammogram is negative. (Source: Y-Me National Breast Cancer Organization)

How can I find out where to get a mammogram?

To find a certified facility, ask your doctor or call the National Cancer Institute Information Service toll free at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237).

What books do you recommend on breast cancer?

  • The Breast Cancer Survival Manual – Second Edition: A Step-by-Step Guide for the Woman with Newly Diagnosed Breast Cancer by John Link, MD (Owl Books, 2000, 212 pages, paperback $15.00)
  • Dr. Susan Love’s Breast Book – Third Edition, Fully Revised by Susan M. Love MD with Karen Lindsey (Perseus Books Group/Harper Collins Publishers, 2000, 700 pages, paperback $20.00)
  • Breast Cancer: The Complete Guide – Third Edition, Fully Revised by Yashar Hirshaut MD and Peter I. Pressman MD (Bantam Books, 2000, 362 pages, paperback $15.95).
  • Just Get Me Through This! The Practical Guide to Breast Cancer by Deborah A. Cohen with Robert M. Gelfand, M.D.(Kensington Books, 2000, 252 pages, paperback $13.00)

What other websites and organizations offer information on breast cancer?

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