Breast Cancer

Breast cancer is a disease that affects women of all ages, incomes, and ethnicities. Men can also get breast cancer, but it is rare, accounting for less than 1% of all breast cancers. In 2008, it is estimated that 182,460 new cases of invasive breast cancer and 67,770 new cases of noninvasive breast cancer are expected to occur among women in the United States. In addition, an estimated 40,480 women with this disease will die. An estimated 1,990 men will be diagnosed with breast cancer, and 450 men will die of the disease.


All women are at risk of getting breast cancer, and a woman's chance of getting breast cancer increases with age. Most women have more than one risk factor for developing breast cancer. Some of the risks for breast cancer include:

  • Having a family history of breast cancer - Although this does increase your risk, most women who get breast cancer do not have a family history of the disease.
  • Having a personal history of breast or ovarian cancer.
  • Having your first child after age 35 or never having children.
  • High bone density.
  • High breast density.
  • Menstruation before age 12.
  • Menopause after age 55.
  • Having a mutation in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 breast cancer genes - It is important to note that having a mutation in these genes raises your risk, but it does not guarantee that you will have breast cancer. In fact, 90-95% of women who get breast cancer do not have these genes.

There is no single cause for breast cancer; some women who have many factors may never develop the disease. Because the cause of breast cancer is not fully known, it is not possible to completely prevent it. However, there are ways to lower your risks, including the following:

  • Stop smoking.
  • Exercise and maintain a healthy diet.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.


A routine self exam is one of the best ways to detect breast cancer. Common signs of breast cancer include the following:

  • Redness, swelling, or warmth of the breast.
  • Skin of the breast may appear reddish purple, pink, or bruised.
  • Skin may have ridges or appear pitted like the skin of an orange.
  • Aching of the breast.
  • Increase in breast size.
  • Tenderness or heaviness of the breast.

These symptoms may also be signs of infection or injury. If you experience any of these symptoms, you should consult your doctor.

There are two very rare types of cancer that also display visible changes to the skin on the breast or the nipple. Paget's disease, while incredibly rare - accounting for less than 5% of all breast cancers - involves symptoms of the nipple including redness, itching, burning, or flaky/scaly skin resembling eczema. There is underlying breast cancer associated with 95% of instances of Paget's disease.

Inflammatory breast cancer, also extremely rare - accounting for only 1-6% of breast cancer cases in the US - also involves the skin on the breast. The affected area becomes swollen and tender, and the skin can resemble the dimpled texture of an orange peel (peau d'orange).

Being aware of these external symptoms can be an important safeguard. Many other conditions can have a similar appearance, so always make sure to contact your doctor immediately if you feel a lump in your breast or have persistent irritation.

There are other methods to check for early signs and symptoms of breast cancer. The earlier the disease is found, the better the chances are for survival.

Mammograms - Women aged 40 and older should have an annual mammogram.

Clinical breast exam - Women aged 40 and older should have an annual clinical breast exam. Women aged 20-39 should have a clinical breast exam every 3 years.

Breast self-exam (BSE) - BSE involves 2 main steps: looking for any changes in the breast and feeling for any changes in the breast. If you notice any changes, you should consult your doctor.

Published on 07/13/2011 | Last updated on 10/18/2018