Breast cancer is a disease that cause cells in the breast to change and grow out of control. In the early stages, when breast cancers are small and most treatable, they typically produce no symptoms.
Once the tumor has grown to a size that can be felt, it often presents as a painless lump. Some breast cancers can spread to nearby lymph nodes in the armpit, causing a lump and swelling even before the tumor in the breast is large enough to feel.
According to the American Cancer Society, other signs and symptoms of breast cancer can include: breast pain or heaviness; persistent changes to the breast, such as swelling, thickening or redness of the skin on the breast; nipple abnormalities such as spontaneous discharge, erosion, inversion or tenderness.
Any persistent abnormality should be evaluated by a physician.
Not counting skin cancer, breast cancer is the most common cancer among women in the United States, accounting for nearly one in three cancer diagnoses. Incidences and death rates from breast cancer increase with age. According to the ACS, 95 percent of new cases and 97 percent of breast cancer deaths occur in women 40 and over.
Between 2004 and 2008, the median age at diagnosis was 61 years old.
Because survival is intricately linked with the size of the breast cancer tumor when it is detected, the American Cancer Society encourages women to follow recommended screening guidelines for detecting the cancer at its earliest stages.
The American Cancer Society has recommendations for the early detection of breast cancer. Women age 40 and older should have a mammogram every year and should continue to do so for as long as they are in good health.
Current guidelines call for women to continue with annual mammograms regardless of age as long as the woman doesn’t have a serious, chronic health problem, such as congestive heart failure, end-stage renal disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and moderate to severe dementia.
Women with serious health problems or short life expectancies should discuss with their doctors whether to continue having mammograms.
Women in their 20s and 30s should have a clinical breast exam as part of a regular health exam by a health professional, preferably every three years. Starting at age 40, women should have a CBE by a health professional every year.
Women at high risk for breast cancer based on certain factors should get an MRI and a mammogram every year. This includes women who:
• Have a lifetime risk of breast cancer of about 20 to 25 percent or greater, according to risk assessment tools that are based mainly on family history (such as the Claus model - see below)
• Have a known BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation
• Have a first-degree relative (parent, brother, sister, or child) with a BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation, and have not had genetic testing themselves
• Had radiation therapy to the chest when they were between the ages of 10 and 30 years
• Have Li-Fraumeni syndrome, Cowden syndrome, or Bannayan-Riley-Ruvalcaba syndrome, or have first-degree relatives with one of these syndromes
The American Cancer Society recommends against MRI screening for women whose lifetime risk of breast cancer is less than 15 percent.
The American Cancer Society believes the use of mammograms, MRI (in women at high risk), clinical breast exams, and finding and reporting breast changes early, according to the recommendations outlined above, offers women the best chance to reduce their risk of dying from breast cancer.