Office of Women's Health

Facts About Breast Cancer

What is breast cancer?

Sometimes breast cells become abnormal. These abnormal cells grow, divide, and create new cells that the body does not need and that do not function normally. The extra cells form a mass called a tumor. Some tumors are "benign" or not cancer. These tumors usually stay in one spot in the breast and do not cause big health problems. Other tumors are "malignant" and are cancer. Breast cancer often starts out too small to be felt. As it grows, it can spread throughout the breast or to other parts of the body. This causes serious health problems and can cause death.

What are the symptoms of breast cancer?

Different people have different warning signs for breast cancer. Some people do not have any signs or symptoms at all. A person may find out they have breast cancer after a routine mammogram.

Some warning signs of breast cancer are—

  • new lump in or near the breast or under the arm
  • thickening or swelling of part of the breast
  • irritation or dimpling of breast skin
  • redness or flaky skin in the nipple area or the breast
  • pulling in of the nipple or pain in the nipple area
  • nipple discharge other than breast milk that occurs without squeezing
  • any change in the size or the shape of the breast
  • pain in any area of the breast

Keep in mind that some of these warning signs can happen with other conditions that are not cancer.

What are the risk factors for developing breast cancer?

  • being female
  • increasing age
  • having a family history of breast cancer
  • being older at the birth of your first child or never having a child
  • not breastfeeding
  • beginning menstruation before age 12 or completing menopause after age 55
  • drinking alcohol (more than one drink a day)
  • not getting regular exercise
  • being overweight
  • having a personal history of breast cancer or some non-cancerous breast diseases
  • having radiation therapy to the breast/chest
  • using hormone replacement therapy for a long time
  • using birth control pills

However, most breast cancer cases occur in women without any risk factors, so everyone should be checked regularly.

What is a woman’s risk of getting breast cancer?

Excluding skin cancer, breast cancer is the most common form of cancer in American women and the second major cause of death after lung cancer. One out of eight women will develop breast cancer over the course of a lifetime.

What does it mean to have a genetic predisposition to breast cancer?

Genes that contain the hereditary information passed down from parent to child serve as the blueprint for many human features and characteristics. The most common cause of hereditary breast cancer is an inherited mutation in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. In normal cells, these genes help prevent cancer by making proteins that help keep the cells from growing abnormally. If you have inherited a mutated copy of either gene from a parent, you have a high risk of developing breast cancer during your lifetime.

These cancers tend to occur in younger women and are more often bilateral (in both breasts) than cancers in women who are not born with one of these gene mutations. Women with these inherited mutations also have an increased risk for developing other cancers, particularly ovarian cancer.

(See BRCA1 and BRCA2 fact sheet for more information).

Can breast cancer be prevented?

There is no sure way to prevent breast cancer, but there are things all women can do that might reduce their risk and help increase the odds that if cancer does occur, it is found at an early, more treatable stage. You can lower your risk of breast cancer by changing those risk factors that are under your control. If you limit alcohol use, exercise regularly, and stay at a healthy weight, you are decreasing your risk of getting breast cancer. Women who choose to breastfeed for at least several months also may reduce their breast cancer risk. Not using post-menopausal hormone therapy (PHT) also can help you avoid raising your risk.

How can breast cancer be found early?

Early detection can help save lives. Mammography remains the most effective means available to detect cancer in its earliest stages. (See Facts About Breast Cancer, Breast Exams and Mammograms for more information.)

Where can I find financial help to get a mammogram?

Partial or total costs of mammograms are covered by Medicare, Medicaid and most private health plans. To find out what the law requires insurance carriers to provide, go to the Illinois Department of Insurance’s website:

The Illinois Breast and Cervical Cancer Program provides free mammograms and Pap tests for women who qualify - women age 35 to 64 and are uninsured. Younger women may qualify if they have symptoms. To find a site near you that provides this free service, call the Women’s Health-Line at 888-522-1282 (TTY 800-547-0466).

How is breast cancer diagnosed?

Doctors often use additional tests to find or diagnose breast cancer.

  • Breast ultrasound. A machine uses sound waves to make detailed pictures, called sonograms, of areas inside the breast.
  • Diagnostic mammogram. If you have a problem in your breast, such as lumps, or if an area of the breast looks abnormal on a screening mammogram, doctors may have you get a diagnostic mammogram. This is a more detailed X-ray of the breast.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). A kind of body scan that uses a magnet linked to a computer. The MRI scan will make detailed pictures of areas inside the breast.
  • Biopsy. This is a test that removes tissue or fluid from the breast to be looked at under a microscope and do more testing. There are different kinds of biopsies (for example, fine-needle aspiration, core biopsy, or open biopsy).

What is staging?

If breast cancer is diagnosed, tests are done to find out if cancer cells have spread within the breast or to other parts of the body. This process is called staging. Whether the cancer is only in the breast, is found in lymph nodes under your arm, or has spread outside the breast determines your stage of breast cancer. The type and stage of breast cancer tells doctors what kind of treatment will be needed.

How is breast cancer treated?

Breast cancer is treated in several ways. It depends on the kind of breast cancer and how far it has spread. Treatments include surgery, chemotherapy, hormonal therapy, biologic therapy, and radiation. People with breast cancer often get more than one kind of treatment.

  • Surgery. An operation where doctors cut out and remove cancer tissue.
  • Chemotherapy. Using special medicines, or drugs to shrink or kill the cancer. The drugs can be pills you take or medicines given through an intravenous (IV) tube, or, sometimes, both.
  • Hormonal therapy. Some cancers need certain hormones to grow. Hormonal treatment is used to block cancer cells from getting the hormones they need to grow.
  • Biological therapy. This treatment works with your body's immune system to help it fight cancer or to control side effects from other cancer treatments. Side effects are how your body reacts to drugs or other treatments. Biological therapy is different from chemotherapy, which attacks cancer cells directly.
  • Radiation. The use of high-energy rays (similar to X-rays) to kill the cancer cells. The rays are aimed at the part of the body where the cancer is located.

It is common for doctors from different specialties to work together in treating breast cancer. Surgeons are doctors that perform operations. Medical oncologists are doctors that treat cancers with medicines. Radiation oncologists are doctors that treat cancers with radiation.

More information about breast cancer can be obtained by contacting:

Illinois Breast and Cervical Cancer Program, Illinois Department of Public Health

American Cancer Society
800-ACS-2345 (800-227-2345)

National Cancer Institute

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
800-CDC-INFO (800-232-4636)