Breast Cancer

What Women Should Know about Breast Cancer

One of the most common cancers for women is breast cancer, which is caused by cells in the body changing and spreading to eventually form a lump or mass called a tumor.

Most breast cancers begin either in the breast tissue made up of glands for producing milk or in the tubes that connect these glands to the nipple. It is usually detected either during a mammography screening, before symptoms have been developed, or after a woman notices a lump in her breast. Therefore, understanding the risk factors, knowing the symptoms and finding ways to talk with your doctor about breast cancer are important for women’s overall health and wellbeing.

To understand when symptoms may appear, women should be familiar with their breasts and be able to detect any changes or abnormalities to discuss with their doctor. Starting at the age of 40, women also have the option to receive a mammogram, which is a x-ray that helps doctors see possible tumors in the breast tissue.

It is also important for women to receive regular health screenings to detect changes in their health. If your doctor does notice anything strange in your breast, he/she may recommend a biopsy of the breast tissue to take a closer look.

What are the risk factors?

According to the American Cancer Society, one in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer over the course of her lifetime. Risk factors include:

  • Age. The strongest risk factor is age. Women age 45 to 54 should get mammograms every year. The risks for breast cancer increase with age and most are diagnosed after age 50.
  • Family history.  A woman’s risk of breast cancer nearly doubles if she has a close relative (mother, sister, daughter) who has been diagnosed with breast cancer.
  • Weight. Women who are overweight or obese are at a higher risk.
  • Inherited changes in DNA. Abnormal changes to certain genes, such as BRCA1 and BRCA2, passed from parents put women at a higher risk.
  • Hormone therapy. Taking hormones to replace estrogen and progesterone in menopause for more than five years raises the risk for breast cancer.

What are the symptoms?

Breast cancer can produce symptoms in the early stages where the tumor is small and most easily treated, which is why routine screenings are so important.

The most common physical symptom of breast cancer is a painless lump. Keep in mind that certain breast cancers can spread to underarm lymph nodes and cause a lump or swelling before the original breast tumor is large enough to be felt.

Less common signs include:

  • Breast pain or heaviness
  • Swelling, thickening or redness of the skin
  • Spontaneous discharge from the nipple
  • Nipple erosion or retraction

What can you do?

There is no sure way to prevent breast cancer, but there are things you can do that might help lower your risk, such as addressing the risk factors that are under your control. If you think you have any of the risk factors or symptoms for breast cancer or you are older than 40, you should talk with your doctor or healthcare provider about getting a mammogram to check for breast cancer. Early detection by mammography leads to a greater range of treatment options. You can find a doctor using the Find a Doctor tool.

Learn More

If you have breast cancer, you may be eligible to receive benefits from Medicaid for Breast and Cervical Cancer. Contact a Breast and Cervical Cancer Services clinic to see if you qualify for this Medicaid program. You can use the Find a Doctor tool to find a clinic offering application assistance.