According to the American Cancer Society, about 300,000 people in the U.S. will be diagnosed with breast cancer in 2016. This disease primarily affects women over the age of 50, but it can also affect men. Thankfully, methods for treatment and diagnosis have come a long way in the past few decades, and breast cancer has been on the decline in the U.S. since 2000. With early intervention, the chances of recovery and leading a happy, active life are very good.

What Is Breast Cancer?

In a healthy individual, cells in the breast or chest regenerate to replace old cells, keeping the tissue healthy. Breast cancer occurs when the cells in the breast undergo abnormal changes and grow out of control. Individuals are diagnosed with breast cancer when a dangerous tumor made up of these out-of-control cells begins growing in the breast.

When you talk to a doctor about breast cancer, you're likely to hear about:

  • Benign tumors, which are harmless tumors that won't spread throughout your body.
  • Malignant tumors, which are harmful tumors that pose risks to your health.
  • Genetic abnormalities, which are irregularities in the way a cell reproduces and operates.

Stages and Types of Breast Cancer

There are various types of breast cancer. You can read more about them here. Invasive ductal carcinoma (IDC), which is a form of cancer that begins in the milk ducts and then invades the rest of the breast, is the most common type of breast cancer. About 80% of all people with breast cancer have IDC.

There are five different stages of breast cancer. Many doctors break each stage down into substages to better determine treatment courses. Substages are defined by the tumor size, lymph node status and whether the tumor has metastasized and spread to other areas. The major stages are as follows:

  • Stage 0: Cancer cells stay inside the breast duct.
  • Stage I: Cancer has not moved outside of the breast, and the tumor measures 2 cm or less.
  • Stage II: The tumor is between 2 and 5 cm or has moved to the lymph nodes.
  • Stage III: Cancer has spread to the lymph nodes.
  • Stage IV: Cancer has metastasized, or spread, to other areas of the body.

Symptoms and Causes

Breast cancer is caused by genetic mutations in cells within the breast, and only 5-10% of cases are caused by hereditary mutations. Environmental factors are responsible for most other mutations.

Most women and men with breast cancer suffer from similar symptoms. The most common symptoms include:

  • Lumps that suddenly appear in the breast or armpit
  • Irritation of breast skin
  • Swelling in the breast
  • Red or flaky skin around the nipple
  • Irregular discharge from the nipple
  • Pain in or around the nipple
  • Change in size or shape of the breast
  • Unexplained or sudden pain in the breast

Prevention and Risks

While some men do develop breast cancer, researchers and doctors say that the biggest risk factor for developing breast cancer is being a woman. This is because of hormones present in women's bodies and how the female breast is structured. Other common risk factors include:

  • Being over 55
  • Having an immediate female family member who's had breast cancer
  • Having radiation to your face or chest before you are 30
  • Being overweight
  • Having no full-term pregnancy before age 30
  • Using hormone replacement therapy (HRT) to replace estrogen and progesterone during menopause
  • Drinking alcohol regularly
  • Smoking cigarettes
  • Having dense breasts

While it's not possible to prevent all breast cancers, there are some steps you can take to reduce your risks of developing this disease, which include:

  • Exercising regularly
  • Quitting smoking or drinking alcohol
  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Avoiding exposure to dangerous chemicals
  • Talking to your doctor about the risks and benefits of HRT if you currently use it
  • Breastfeeding your children if possible

Diagnosis and Tests

Regular self-exams are one of the first steps in recognizing and diagnosing breast cancer. You should perform a breast self-exam once a month. Many individuals find that it's easiest to give themselves an exam in the shower. In addition to self-exams and breast exams, doctors use four other types of exams to diagnose breast cancer, which include:

  • Breast ultrasounds that examine the interior of the breast
  • Mammograms that take X-rays of the breast
  • MRIs that create a detailed picture of the breast
  • Biopsies, which are used to determine if potential tumors are malignant or benign

If your doctor diagnoses you with breast cancer, you'll likely undergo further testing to determine what stage you are at in the disease.

Treatments, Procedures, and Medications

The five most common treatments for breast cancer today are:

  • Surgery: Malignant tumors are removed during surgery. In some cases, the whole breast is removed. This procedure is called a mastectomy.
  • Chemotherapy: Both intravenous medications and pills are used to help kill cancer cells. These treatments can be done in hospitals, in treatment centers, or at home.
  • Hormone therapy: Patients are given hormones that prevent cancer cells from getting the nutrients they need to grow.
  • Biological therapy: This type of therapy works with your body to help discourage the growth of new cancer cells and to repair the damage caused by other treatments such as chemotherapy.
  • Radiation therapy: High-energy rays of radiation are used to shrink or kill cancer cells. Radiation is often used in combination with surgery and chemotherapy.

If your doctor determines that you will need to have some or all of your breast tissue removed, you will meet with a surgeon who specializes in breast surgery. The surgeon will describe the proposed operation and all of your options in detail so that you can make an informed decision about your treatment. Once your doctors come up with a surgery plan, you'll meet with a radiation oncologist who understands how to treat breast cancer with radiation.

In the months following your treatment, you'll continue to meet with your medical oncologist and radiation oncologist. If you have surgery, you'll also meet with your surgeon or a nurse practitioner to ensure that your incisions are healing correctly and that the entire tumor was removed. You'll also continue to meet with your family physician during this time. Your family physician will help your medical team monitor your progress.

If you'd like to have breast reconstruction done after a mastectomy, you can also meet with a plastic surgeon who specializes in these operations. A plastic surgeon can explain your reconstruction options and will work with the rest of your medical team to determine when you're eligible for reconstructive surgery. In many cases, private insurance will cover some of the costs of breast reconstruction for cancer patients.

Many individuals with breast cancer also find that they experience anxiety and depression after diagnosis and during treatment. This is totally normal. Your family physician or medical oncologist can refer you to therapists, counselors, and other mental health professionals who specialize in helping patients with serious diseases.

Healthy Lifestyle Tips

If you're concerned about or have been diagnosed with breast cancer, remember the importance of choosing a healthy diet and exercising regularly. Maintain a healthy weight, and eat well to help your body fight off disease. Avoiding foods that are exposed to dangerous chemicals and pesticides can also decrease your risk of developing cancer. Some of the foods that dietitians and doctors recommend people at a high risk for cancer avoid include processed meats, refined sugar, pickled and smoked foods, and foods sold in packages that contain BPA. Many doctors also suggest that breast cancer patients avoid or limit soy in their diets.


A breast cancer diagnosis can be scary, but treatment outcomes are good when the disease is caught in its early stages. Talk to your doctor, read more about breast cancer diagnosis and treatment, and ask your friends and family for support.