The importance of finding breast cancer early
The goal of screening exams for breast cancer is to find cancers before they start to cause symptoms (like a lump that can be felt). Screening refers to tests and exams used to find a disease, such as cancer, in people who do not have any symptoms. Early detection means using an approach that lets breast cancer get diagnosed earlier than otherwise might have occurred.
Breast cancers that are found because they are causing symptoms tend to be larger and are more likely to have already spread beyond the breast. In contrast, breast cancers found during screening exams are more likely to be smaller and still confined to the breast. The size of a breast cancer and how far it has spread are some of the most important factors in predicting the prognosis (outlook) of a woman with this disease.
Most doctors feel that early detection tests for breast cancer save thousands of lives each year, and that many more lives could be saved if even more women and their health care providers took advantage of these tests. Following the American Cancer Society's guidelines for the early detection of breast cancer improves the chances that breast cancer can be diagnosed at an early stage and treated successfully.
What are the risk factors for breast cancer?
A risk factor is anything that affects your chance of getting a disease, such as cancer. Different cancers have different risk factors. For example, exposing skin to strong sunlight is a risk factor for skin cancer. Smoking is a risk factor for cancers of the lung, mouth, larynx (voice box), bladder, kidney, and several other organs.
But risk factors don't tell us everything. Having a risk factor, or even several, does not mean that you will get the disease. Most women who have one or more breast cancer risk factors never develop the disease, while many women with breast cancer have no apparent risk factors (other than being a woman and growing older). Even when a woman with risk factors develops breast cancer, it is hard to know just how much these factors might have contributed to her cancer.
Some risk factors, like a person's age or race, can't be changed. Others are related to personal behaviors such as smoking, drinking, and diet. Still others are linked to cancer-causing factors in the environment. Some factors influence risk more than others, and your risk for breast cancer can change over time, due to factors such as aging or lifestyle changes.
Signs and symptoms of breast cancer
Widespread use of screening mammograms has increased the number of breast cancers found before they cause any symptoms. Still some breast cancers are not found by mammograms, either because the test was not done or because even under ideal conditions mammograms do not find every breast cancer.
The most common symptom of breast cancer is a new lump or mass. A mass that is painless, hard, and has irregular edges is more likely to be cancerous, but breast cancers can be tender, soft, or rounded. They can even be painful. For this reason, it is important to have any new breast mass or lump, or breast change checked by a health care professional experienced in diagnosing breast diseases.
Other possible signs of breast cancer include:
- Swelling of all or part of a breast (even if no distinct lump is felt)
- Skin irritation or dimpling
- Breast or nipple pain
- Nipple retraction (turning inward)
- Redness, scaliness, or thickening of the nipple or breast skin
- A nipple discharge other than breast milk
Sometimes a breast cancer can spread to lymph nodes under the arm or around the collar bone and cause a lump or swelling there, even before the original tumor in the breast tissue is large enough to be felt.
Although any of these symptoms can be caused by things other than breast cancer, if you have them, they should be reported to your doctor so that he or she can find the cause.
National organizations and websites
Along with the American Cancer Society, other sources of information and support include:
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
Cancer Prevention and Control Program
Toll-free number: 1-800-232-4636 (1-800-CDC-INFO)
Information about the National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program
National Cancer Institute (NCI)
Toll-free number: 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237)
General breast cancer information
*Inclusion on this list does not imply endorsement by the American Cancer Society.
No matter who you are, we can help. Contact us any time, day or night, for information and support. Call us at 1-800-227-2345 or visit www.cancer.org.
Courtesy of the American Cancer Society