Every three minutes a woman learns she has breast cancer.  It is the most common cancer among women, next to skin cancer. Current statistics state that one in nine women will get breast cancer.  But before you start to worry, according to, “The statistic actually says that of every nine women who live to be 85, one will get breast cancer.  But most women don’t live that long.  The risk is much lower for young and middle-aged women.  At age 45, for example, the average woman’s risk is only one in 93; at age 50, it’s one in 49.”  So, generally speaking, for most women the risk is lower than the often-quoted “one in nine.”


Risk Factors and Prevention

No one knows for sure why some people get cancer and others don’t, but researchers have identified several risk factors that increase a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer.  (Men get breast cancer, too, but it is very rare.  Only 1% of all cases of breast cancer are seen in men.  Research suggests a link between the female hormone estrogen and breast cancer, thus accounting for its rare occurrence in men.)


The following list identifies known risk factors for breast cancer.  Some you can control and some you can’t. 

  • Age of menstruation
  • Number of births
  • Taking birth control pills
  • Diet
  • Use of alcohol
  • Benign breast disease
  •  Height
  • Weight
  • Your age at first birth of child
  • Age at menopause
  • Whether or not you breast fed your children
  • Post menopausal hormones
  • Family history
  • Ethnic background


For a discussion of each of the above risk factors and its role in breast cancer go to:


To assess your own personal risk of breast cancer, take the quiz found at

 In addition to estimating your risk of getting breast cancer, the  previous site also provides personalized suggestions for preventing it. 


There are a number of things that you can do for yourself to lower your own risk of breast cancer.

  • Eat a healthy diet
  • Add vitamin and minerals
  • Watch your weight
  • Be careful with alcohol
  • Don’t smoke
  • Exercise
  • Ask questions about the Pill
  • Ask about hormone replacement therapy
  • If you have breast cancer, get support

 For more information about each of these suggestions go to


Early Detection

Although young and middle-aged women have a reduced risk of breast cancer, it is still important for all women to be vigilant about detecting early signs of breast cancer.  Early detection and treatment of the cancer before it has spread to surrounding tissues gives the woman a good chance for long and healthy life.  The following are the most common breast cancer screening methods.

Breast self-exam — Learn the normal look and feel of your breasts, and check for changes every month. Many women have a pattern of lumpiness in their breasts, which is normal. But if you feel a change or a new lump in your breasts or underarms, ask your doctor to examine the area. When you do your breast self-exam every month, look and feel for the following signs of possible problems in your breast or underarm area. If you notice any of them, make an appointment to show them to a trained medical professional right away.

  • any new, hard lump or thickening in any part of the breast
  • change in breast size or shape
  • dimpling or puckering of the skin
  • swelling, redness, or warmth that does not go away
  • pain in one spot that does not vary with your monthly cycle
  • pulling in of the nipple
  • nipple discharge that starts suddenly and appears only in one breast
  • an itchy, sore, or scaling area on one nipple

Clinical breast exam — A breast exam by a trained medical professional should be part of your regular medical checkup. If it is not, ask for it. It includes visual examination and carefully feeling the entire area of breast tissue. If you are 40 or older, schedule your mammogram close to the time of your clinical breast exam.

Mammogram — A mammogram is an x-ray picture of the breast. It is done with a special x-ray machine designed just for this purpose. A mammogram can find many cancers before they can be felt.


Stages of Breast Cancer

 Breast cancer occurs in 5 stages, which indicate the size of the tumor and how far the cancer has spread within the breast, nearby tissues, and to other organs.  Treatment is often determined by the following stages:

 Carcinoma in situ:  Cancer is confined to the lobules (milk producing glands) or ducts (passages connecting milk producing glands to the nipple) and has not invaded nearby breast tissue. 

Stage I:  Tumor is smaller than or equal to 2 centimeters in diameter and underarm lymph nodes test negative for cancer. 

Stage II:  Tumor is between 2 and 5 centimeters in diameter with or without positive lymph nodes, or tumor is greater than 5 centimeters without positive lymph nodes. 

Stage IIIA:  Tumor is larger than 5 centimeters with positive lymph nodes. 

Stage IIIB:  Tumor, regardless of size, has metastasized (spread) to distant sites such as bones, lungs, or lymph nodes not near the breast. 

Recurrent breast cancer:  The disease has returned in spite of initial treatment.



Breast Cancer Treatments

Breast cancer can be treated with surgery, radiation and drugs (chemotherapy and hormonal therapy).  Doctors may use one or a combination of these depending on factors such as stage, location, and patient’s overall health. 

Most women with breast cancer will have some type of surgery, depending on the stage of the breast cancer.  The three most common surgeries are: 

                Lumpectomy – the least invasive surgery, removes only the cancerous tissue and        

                a surrounding margin of normal cells. 

Modified radical mastectomy – includes removal of the entire breast and some of the underarm lymph nodes. 

Radical mastectomy – very disfiguring and includes removal of the breast, lymph nodes, and chest wall muscles under the breast.  This surgery is rarely performed today because doctors believe the modified radical mastectomy is just as effective. 


Radiation therapy is a treatment with high-energy rays or particles given to destroy cancer.  Lumpectomy is almost always followed by six to seven weeks of radiation therapy, an integral part of breast conserving treatment.  Radiation therapy destroys both normal cells and cancer cells; however, most of the normal cells are able to repair themselves and function properly.  Side effects may include swelling and heaviness in the breast, sunburn-like skin changes in the treated area, and swelling of the arm due to fluid buildup if the underarm lymph nodes were treated.

Drugs are used to reach cancer cells that may have spread beyond the breast.  The term “chemotherapy” refers to any type of drug therapy used to destroy these cancer cells. 

The FDA has recently approved new drugs and new uses for older drugs for the treatment of breast cancer. 

Herceptin (trastuzumab) – Many women with breast cancer have an excess of a protein called HER2, which makes tumors grow quickly.  Herceptin binds to the HER2 protein and kills the excess cancer cells leaving healthy cells alone. 

Nolvadex (tamoxifen citrate) – A drug that has been used for 20 years in the treatment of breast cancer, it was approved by the FDA in October 1998 for breast cancer risk reduction in high-risk women.  Tamoxifen interferes with activity of estrogen by slowing or stopping the growth of cancer cells already present in the body.  

Xeloda (capecitabine) – was approved by the FDA in April 1998 for the treatment of breast cancer that has spread to other parts of the body and is resistant to most other drug therapies. 

Actiq (oral transmucosal fentanyl citrate) - was approved by the FDA in November 1998 as a treatment for cancer patients with severe pain that breaks through their regular narcotic therapy.  Actiq is in the form of a sugar lozenge that dissolves slowly in the mouth.


 Breakthroughs in Breast Cancer Treatment

 New chemotherapy drugs and drug combinations continue to be developed and tested in clinical trials.  Some of these include bisphosphonates, a group of drugs used to treat osteoporosis, monoclonal antibodies, similar to Herceptin, and angiogenesis inhibitors, which block the development of the blood vessels that nourish the tumors.

 The most promising breakthrough is a new microwave weapon that destroys tumors but preserves the breast.  The treatment aims two beams of energy at the cancer site and when the beams meet, they magnify each other to make the tumor four times hotter then the surrounding tissue or cells.  The microwaves work especially well on breast cancer cells because they have a much higher water content than healthy breast tissue.  The treatment takes only 15–30 minutes and early trials have proven it to be safe.  Clinical trials are expected to conclude in 12–18 months.


There is so much information available on breast cancer prevention, detection, and treatment and while it may seem overwhelming, please remember 

knowledge is power and fear is the enemy. 


For much more information about breast cancer check out the websites listed below.

A comprehensive website that provides information on treatment, online resources, articles, and support services.

 The International Breast Cancer Research Foundation ( IBCRF ) exists to sponsor and conduct worldwide research projects that promise to provide answers to critical questions about the causes and successful treatment of breast cancer.

 Website for the Susan G. Komen Foundation includes complete breast health education, “Race for the Cure” schedule, treatment, survivor stories, message board, and also includes information on how individuals can help in the fight against breast cancer.

Breast is a member of the YourDoctor family of health Internet sites. is designed as an educational tool for breast cancer patients and their families. This site is written, edited, and maintained by a group of physicians who specialize in breast cancer offering you the latest in breast cancer research while aiming to present it in easy-to-understand language.

The National Alliance of Breast Cancer Organizations (NABCO) is the leading non-profit information and education resource on breast cancer and a network of over 400 member organizations nationwide. NABCO provides information to medical professionals and their organizations and to patients and their families, and advocates for beneficial regulatory change and legislation.

Y-ME provides information and support to those touched by breast cancer, their families, healthcare professionals and the public, and advocates for scientific research and for the rights of people with breast cancer.


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