Breast Cancer: Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis, Prevention, and Treatment

What is Breast Cancer?

Breast cancer is cancer that develops in the cells of the breasts. It is the most common type of cancer in the U.S. after skin cancer. Breast cancer can affect both men and women, but it’s more common in women.

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The survival rates of breast cancer has increased and the mortality rates declined due to the substantial support for breast cancer awareness and research funding. The key factor to overcoming breast cancer is early diagnosis and treatment. This is why it is essential for women to go for regular checkups.

What are the types of breast cancer?

  1. Angiosarcoma
  2. Invasive lobular carcinoma
  3. Paget’s disease of the breast
  4. Ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS)
  5. Recurrent breast cancer
  6. Inflammatory breast cancer
  7. Male breast cancer

What are the Symptoms of Breast cancer

Signs and symptoms of breast cancer may include:

  • Thickening in breast (lump) that feels different from the surrounding tissue
  • Newly inverted nipple
  • Change in the size, shape or appearance of a breast
  • Changes to the skin over the breast, such as dimpling
  • Redness or pitting of the skin over your breast, like the skin of an orange
  • Peeling, scaling, crusting or flaking of the pigmented area of skin surrounding the nipple

When to see a doctor

If you find a lump or other abnormal change in your breast, consult your doctor immediately. Surviving breast cancer is mostly based on timely medical intervention.

What causes breast cancer?

Breast cancer occurs when some breast cells rapidly begin to grow abnormally. These cells divide more quickly compared to healthy cells and continue to accumulate, forming a lump or mass. Cells may spread through your breast to your lymph nodes or to other parts of your body.

Breast cancer mostly starts with cells in the milk-producing ducts (invasive ductal carcinoma). It may also begin in the glandular tissue called lobules (invasive lobular carcinoma) or in other cells or tissue within the breast.

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Inherited breast cancer

Some cases of breast cancers are linked to gene mutations passed through generations of a family. A number of inherited mutated genes that can increase the possibility of breast cancer have been identified. The most well-known are breast cancer gene 1 (BRCA1) and breast cancer gene 2 (BRCA2), both of which significantly increase the risk of both breast cancer and ovarian cancer.

What are the risk factors of developing breast cancer?

Factors that are associated with an increased risk of breast cancer include:

  • Being female: Women are more likely to develop breast cancer compared to men.
  • Increasing age: As you grow older, your risk of breast cancer increases.
  • Inherited genes that increase cancer risk: Certain gene mutations that increase the risk of breast cancer can be passed from parents to children. The most well-known gene mutations are referred to as BRCA1 and BRCA2. These genes can greatly increase your risk of breast cancer and other cancers, but they don’t make cancer inevitable.
  • A personal history of breast conditions
  • A personal history of breast cancer.
  • A family history of breast cancer
  • Radiation exposure
  • Obesity
  • Beginning your period at a younger age
  • Alcohol consumption
  • Beginning menopause at an older age
  • Having your first child at an older age
  • Having never been pregnant
  • Postmenopausal hormone therapy

Preventing breast cancer

Breast cancer risk reduction for women with an average risk

  • Ask your doctor about breast cancer screening. For women with average risk of developing breast cancer, you should discuss with your doctor when to begin breast cancer screening exams and tests, such as clinical breast exams and mammograms.
  • If you must, drink alcohol in moderation. If you choose to take alcohol, limit the amount you drink to no more than one drink a day.
  • Exercise most days of the week. Engage in at least 30 minutes of exercise on most days of the week. If you haven’t been active lately, ask your doctor whether it’s OK and start slowly.
  • Limit postmenopausal hormone therapy. Combination hormone therapy may increase the risk of breast cancer. Talk with your doctor about the benefits and risks of hormone therapy. To reduce the risk of breast cancer, use the lowest dose of hormone therapy possible for the shortest amount of time.
  • Breast self-exam for breast awareness. Women should inspect their breasts occasionally. Consult your doctor if there is a new change, lumps or other unusual signs in your breasts.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. Cut down on the number of calories you consume each day and slowly increase the amount of exercise. If your weight is healthy, work to maintain that weight. If you need to lose weight, ask your doctor about healthy strategies to use.
  • Choose a healthy diet. Women who eat a Mediterranean diet supplemented with extra-virgin olive oil and mixed nuts may have a reduced risk of breast cancer. The Mediterranean diet focuses mostly on plant-based foods, such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts.


To diagnose breast cancer, your doctor may order the following tests and procedures:

  • Breast exam.This involves your doctor checking your breasts and lymph nodes in your armpit, feeling for any lumps or other irregularities.
  • Mammogram is an x-ray of the breasts that is commonly used to screen for breast cancer. If an abnormality is detected on a screening mammogram, your doctor may recommend a diagnostic mammogram for further evaluation.
  • Breast ultrasound.Ultrasound uses sound waves to produce images of structures deep within the body. Ultrasound may be used to check whether a new breast lump is a solid mass or a fluid-filled cyst.
  • Removing a sample of breast cells for testing (biopsy).One of the most effective ways of diagnosing breast cancer is through biopsy. It involves the doctor using a specialized needle device guided by X-ray or another imaging test to extract a core of tissue from the suspicious area.

Biopsy samples are sent to a laboratory for analysis where experts determine whether the cells are cancerous or benign.

  • Breast magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).An MRI machine uses a magnet and radio waves to create pictures of the interior of your breast. Before a breast MRI, you receive an injection of dye. Unlike other types of imaging tests, an MRI doesn’t use radiation to create the images.

Stages of breast cancer

After diagnosis has confirmed you have breast cancer, the next step is for your doctor to establish the extent (stage) of your cancer. Your cancer’s stage helps determine your prognosis and the best treatment options.

Breast cancer stages range from 0 to IV. Stage 0 indicates that the cancer is noninvasive or contained within the milk ducts. While stage IV breast cancer, also called metastatic breast cancer, means cancer has spread to other areas of the body.

The stages of breast cancer also considers your cancer’s grade; the presence of tumor markers, such as receptors for estrogen, progesterone and HER2; and proliferation factors.

Treating Breast cancer

There are many treatment options for breast cancer. Seek a second opinion from a breast specialist in a breast center or clinic. Discuss with other women who have faced the same decision.

Breast cancer surgery

There are two main types of breast surgery to remove cancerous tumors:

Breast-conserving surgery

This is also called lumpectomy or partial mastectomy. This procedure involves a surgery in which only the part of the breast containing the cancer is removed. The aim is to remove the cancer as well as some surrounding normal tissue.


This surgery involves removing the entire breast, including all of the breast tissue and sometimes other nearby tissues. There are several different types of mastectomies. Some women may also get a double mastectomy, in which both breasts are removed.

Radiation therapy

This treatment option uses high-powered beams of energy, such as X-rays and protons, to destroy cancer cells. Radiation therapy is typically done using a large machine that targets the energy beams at your body (external beam radiation). However, radiation can also be done by placing radioactive material inside your body (brachytherapy).

Side effects of radiation therapy include fatigue and a red, sunburn-like rash where the radiation is aimed. Breast tissue may also appear swollen or firmer.


Chemotherapy uses drugs to destroy rapidly growing cancer cells. If your cancer has a high risk of returning or spreading to another part of your body, your doctor may recommend chemotherapy after surgery to decrease the chance that the cancer will recur.

Side effects of chemotherapy include hair loss, nausea, vomiting, fatigue and an increased risk of developing an infection.

Hormone therapy

Hormone therapy is often used to treat breast cancers that are sensitive to hormones. Doctors sometimes refer to these cancers as estrogen receptor positive (ER positive) and progesterone receptor positive (PR positive) cancers.

Hormone therapy can be used before or after surgery or other treatments to decrease the chance of your cancer returning. If the cancer has already spread, hormone therapy may shrink and control it.

Targeted therapy drugs

These drugs attack specific abnormalities within cancer cells. Some targeted therapy drugs focus on a protein that some breast cancer cells produce in excess, called human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2). The protein helps breast cancer cells grow and survive. By targeting cells that make too much HER2, the drugs can damage cancer cells while healthy cells remains intact.

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Targeted therapy drugs that focus on other abnormalities within cancer cells are available. And targeted therapy is an active area of cancer research.

Supportive (palliative) care

This is a specialized medical care that focuses on providing relief from pain and other symptoms of a severe illness. Palliative care specialists work with you, your family and your other doctors to provide an extra layer of support that foils your constant care. Palliative care can be used while undergoing other aggressive treatments, such as surgery, chemotherapy or radiation therapy.


Disclaimer: The content provided on is purely informative and educational in nature and should not be interpreted as medical advice. Please use the content only in consultation with an appropriate certified medical doctor or healthcare professional.


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