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Breast Cancer


What is breast cancer? Breast cancer is a cancer that starts in the tissue of the female or male breast. It may start in the ducts of the breast. The ducts carry milk from the mammary glands to the nipple. Breast cancer cells may spread to other parts of the body, such as the liver, lung, and brain.

What increases my risk for breast cancer? The cause of breast cancer is not known. The following may increase your risk:

  • You had your first monthly period before 11 years old, or are still having periods after 54 years old.

  • You had your first pregnancy after the age of 40.

  • You have taken birth control or female hormones.

  • You have not breastfed, or you breastfed for only a short time.

  • You have a close family member with breast cancer.

  • You eat foods high in fat.

  • You are overweight.

What are the signs and symptoms of breast cancer?

  • Swelling or a lump in your breast

  • Bleeding or clear discharge from your nipple

  • Aching or soreness of your breast

  • Skin that is dimpled like an orange peel

  • Nipple that looks like it has been pushed in

  • Swollen lymph nodes under your arm

How is breast cancer diagnosed? Your caregiver will feel for lumps in your breast. You will also have a mammogram. This is an x-ray of your breasts, and can help find lumps that are too small to feel during a breast exam. Your caregiver will also ask about other health conditions you have. He will also ask if you have any family members with breast cancer. You may need the following tests:

  • Ultrasound: An ultrasound uses sound waves to show pictures on a monitor. An ultrasound may be done to show pictures of your breast. This can check for cysts (fluid-filled pockets) or masses, such as a tumor.

  • MRI: This scan uses powerful magnets and a computer to take pictures of your breast and the surrounding area. An MRI may show a mass if it is very small. You may be given dye to help the pictures show up better. Tell the caregiver if you have ever had an allergic reaction to contrast dye. Do not enter the MRI room with anything metal. Metal can cause serious injury. Tell the caregiver if you have any metal in or on your body.

  • Biopsy: This is a procedure to remove part or all of the lump or tumor. The tissue is then sent for testing to see if it contains cancer, the type of cancer it is, and if it responds to hormones.

How is breast cancer treated? Treatment depends on the size of the tumor, if it has spread, and if it responds to hormones. You may need more than one of the following:

  • Hormone medicine: This may be used if the cancer is sensitive to hormones.

  • Radiation therapy: This uses high-energy beams of x-rays to kill cancer cells.

  • Chemotherapy: These medicines are used to kill cancer cells.

  • Targeted therapy: These medicines target special markers on some cancer cells and kill them.

  • Surgery: You may need surgery to remove the tumor.

What are the risks of breast cancer? You may have pain and swelling of your arm after surgery. You may get a blood clot in your arm or leg after surgery. The clot may travel to your heart or brain and cause life-threatening problems, such as a heart attack or stroke. If breast cancer is not treated, it can spread to other parts of your body, such as your liver, lungs, and brain. It may become life-threatening. The cancer may spread even if you are treated.


You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your caregivers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

© 2014 Truven Health Analytics Inc. Information is for End User's use only and may not be sold, redistributed or otherwise used for commercial purposes. All illustrations and images included in CareNotes® are the copyrighted property of A.D.A.M., Inc. or Truven Health Analytics.

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