The survival rates for breast cancer have been rising for many years. But the key to beating it is catching it early—which is why doctors now recommend women get regular yearly screenings from age 40 onward.
Treatment may include surgery, chemotherapy and hormone therapy. In some cases, targeted biological agents are also used.
Know the Symptoms
The first signs of breast cancer are often a lump or other changes in the shape or texture of your breasts. Your doctor will look at these symptoms and tell you whether they are likely to be caused by other things, such as a cyst or an infection.
If your doctor thinks something might be wrong, they will usually order a mammogram and an ultrasound. They may also use other tests, such as a CT scan or an MRI, to help them learn more about your symptoms and find out how far the cancer has spread. This is called staging.
You will probably need to continue to visit your doctor for a few years after treatment finishes, so they can check for any signs that the cancer is coming back. You will need blood and other tests to see how well your treatment worked. If the cancer returns, your doctors will try to make the best plan for how to treat it again.
Know Your Risk
Although some cancers are caused by risk factors, most do not have any known cause. Research continues to look at what causes certain types of cancer, but the overall message is clear: all people should be aware of their risks and talk with a health care professional about screening and prevention options.
The most important risk factor is having a family history of breast or other types of cancer. This includes your mother, sisters, aunts, and cousins. If you have a strong family history, your doctor can help make a prevention plan including screenings and lifestyle changes. Being overweight also increases your risk of breast cancer, so maintaining a healthy weight is key. Limiting alcohol consumption is recommended, as even one drink per day can increase your risk. It is also helpful to perform monthly self-exams to know how your body normally feels. If you notice any unusual changes, visit your doctor immediately. They may recommend additional tests or a biopsy.
Know Your Options
Cancer cells can grow out of control in one or both breasts and form a tumor, which can be seen on a mammogram and felt as a lump. They can also spread to other parts of the body, and when they do, it’s called metastatic breast cancer.
Your doctor will need to take a tissue sample from your tumor and send it to a lab to determine its stage, grade, and how likely it is to grow and spread. Your doctor will use this information to help decide on your treatment options.
You’ll probably need surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. Other treatments may include hormone therapy and targeted therapies. Some patients also choose to have breast reconstruction, which rebuilds the shape of your natural breasts and may be combined with a mastectomy or lumpectomy. It’s important to learn as much as you can about your options.
Even with regular mammograms and a doctor, breast cancer can develop in between screenings. That’s why it’s important to do monthly self-exams. This way, you can become familiar with the symmetry, shape and feel of your breast tissue and notice changes, especially when they’re unusual.
It’s also helpful to know what the different symptoms can mean, so you can tell your doctor about them. They can then order tests to get more information.
These can include ultrasound, mammograms, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and a biopsy. For a biopsy, your doctor will take a tissue sample from the suspicious area. This might be done with a fine-needle aspiration, core-needle biopsy or surgical (open) biopsy.
While experts don’t know what causes breast cancer, they do know that certain things increase your risk. These include age, family history of the disease, and being a woman. There are some factors that you can control, such as smoking and your diet.