What is cancer?
Breast Cancer Overview
The information that follows is an overview of this type of cancer. For more detailed information, call our toll-free number (1-800-227-2345) or visit our Web site at www.cancer.org.
What is cancer?
The body is made up of hundreds of millions of living cells. Normal body cells grow, divide, and die in an orderly way. During the early years of a person's life, normal cells divide faster to allow the person to grow. After the person becomes an adult, most cells divide only to replace worn-out, damaged, or dying cells.
Cancer begins when cells in a part of the body start to grow out of control. There are many kinds of cancer, but they all start because of this out-of-control growth of abnormal cells.
Cancer cell growth is different from normal cell growth. Instead of dying, cancer cells keep on growing and form new cancer cells. These cancer cells can grow into (invade) other tissues, something that normal cells cannot do. Being able to grow out of control and invade other tissues are what makes a cell a cancer cell.
In most cases the cancer cells form a tumor. But some cancers, like leukemia, rarely form tumors. Instead, these cancer cells are in the blood and bone marrow.
When cancer cells get into the bloodstream or lymph vessels, they can travel to other parts of the body. There they begin to grow and form new tumors that replace normal tissue. This process is called metastasis (muh-tas-tuh-sis).
No matter where a cancer may spread, it is always named for the place where it started. For instance, breast cancer that has spread to the liver is still called breast cancer, not liver cancer. Likewise, prostate cancer that has spread to the bone is called metastatic prostate cancer, not bone cancer.
Different types of cancer can behave very differently. For example, lung cancer and breast cancer are very different diseases. They grow at different rates and respond to different treatments. That is why people with cancer need treatment that is aimed at their own kind of cancer.
Not all tumors are cancerous. Tumors that aren't cancer are called benign (be-nine). Benign tumors can cause problems-- they can grow very large and press on healthy organs and tissues. But they cannot grow into other tissues. Because of this, they also can't spread to other parts of the body (metastasize). These tumors are almost never life threatening.
What is breast cancer?
Breast cancer is a malignant (cancer) tumor that starts from cells of the breast. It is found mostly in women, but men can get breast cancer, too. Here we will only talk about breast cancer in women. You can learn more about breast cancer in men in our document, Breast Cancer in Men.
Parts of the normal breast
To understand breast cancer, it helps to know something about the normal structure or parts of the breasts, as shown in the picture below.
A woman's breast is made up of glands that make breast milk (called lobules), ducts (small tubes that carry milk from the lobules to the nipple), fatty and connective tissue, blood vessels, and lymph (pronounced limf) vessels. Most breast cancers begin in the cells that line the ducts (ductal cancer), some begin in the lobules (lobular cancer), and a small number start in other tissues.
The lymph system
The lymph system is one of the main ways in which breast cancers can spread.
Lymph nodes are small, bean-shaped groups of immune system cells (cells that fight infections) that are connected by lymphatic vessels. Lymphatic vessels are like small veins, except that they carry a clear fluid called lymph (instead of blood) away from the breast. Breast cancer cells can enter lymphatic vessels and begin to grow in lymph nodes.
Most lymph vessels of the breast lead to lymph nodes under the arm. These are called axillary nodes. If breast cancer cells reach the underarm lymph nodes and keep on growing, they cause the nodes to swell. The doctor needs to know whether cancer cells have spread to lymph nodes because if they have, there is a higher chance that the cells have also gotten into the bloodstream and spread to other places in the body. The more lymph nodes that have cancer in them, the more likely it is that the cancer will be found in other organs, too. This could affect the treatment plan.
Breast lumps that are not cancer
Most breast lumps are benign. This means they are not cancer. Benign breast tumors are abnormal growths, but they do not spread outside of the breast and they are not life threatening. But some benign breast lumps can increase a woman's risk of getting breast cancer.
Most lumps are caused by fibrocystic changes. Cysts are fluid-filled sacs. Fibrosis is the formation of scar-like tissue. These changes can cause breast swelling and pain. They often happen just before a woman's period is about to start. The breasts may feel lumpy, and sometimes there is a clear or slightly cloudy nipple discharge. For more on fibrocystic changes and other benign breast changes, please see our document, Non-cancerous Breast Conditions.
Breast cancer terms
It can be hard to understand some of the words your doctor uses to talk about breast cancer. Here are some of the key words you might hear:
Carcinoma: This is a term used to describe a cancer that begins in the lining layer of organs such as the breast. Nearly all breast cancers are carcinomas (either ductal carcinomas or lobular carcinomas).
Adenocarcinoma: An adenocarcinoma is a type of cancer that starts in gland tissue (tissue that makes and secretes a substance). The ducts and lobules of the breast are gland tissues because they make breast milk, so cancers starting in these areas are often called adenocarcinomas.
Carcinoma in situ: This term is used for the early stage of cancer, when it is still only in the layer of cells where it began. In breast cancer, in situ means that the cancer cells are only in the ducts (ductal carcinoma in situ) or lobules (lobular carcinoma in situ). They have not spread into deeper tissues in the breast or to other organs in the body. They are sometimes called non-invasive or pre-invasive breast cancers.
Invasive (infiltrating) carcinoma: An invasive cancer is one that has already grown beyond the layer of cells where it started (unlike carcinoma in situ). Most breast cancers are invasive carcinomas -- either invasive ductal carcinoma or invasive lobular carcinoma.
Sarcoma: Sarcomas are cancers that start from connective tissues such as muscle tissue, fat tissue or blood vessels. Sarcomas of the breast are rare.
Types of breast cancers
There are many types of breast cancer, but some of them are very rare. Sometimes a breast tumor can be a mix of these types or a mixture of invasive and in situ cancer.
Ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS): This is the most common type of non-invasive breast cancer. DCIS means that the cancer is only in the ducts. It has not spread through the walls of the ducts into the tissue of the breast. Nearly all women with cancer at this stage can be cured. Often the best way to find DCIS early is with a mammogram. If there are areas of dead or dying cancer cells (called tumor necrosis) within the biopsy sample (when tissue is taken out to be looked at in the lab), the tumor is likely to grow and spread quickly (be more aggressive).
Lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS): This begins in the milk-making glands (lobules) but does not go through the wall of the lobules. It is not a true cancer, but having LCIS increases a woman's risk of getting cancer later. For this reason, it's important that women with LCIS make sure they have regular mammograms and doctor visits.
Invasive (or infiltrating) ductal carcinoma (IDC): This is the most common breast cancer. It starts in a milk passage (a duct), breaks through the wall of the duct, and invades the tissue of the breast. From there it may be able to spread (metastasize) to other parts of the body. It accounts for about 8 out of 10 invasive breast cancers.
Invasive (infiltrating) lobular carcinoma (ILC): This cancer starts in the milk glands (the lobules). It can spread (metastasize) to other parts of the body. About 1 out of 10 invasive breast cancers are of this type.
Inflammatory breast cancer (IBC): This uncommon type of invasive breast cancer accounts for about 1% to 3% of all breast cancers. Usually there is no single lump or tumor. Instead, IBC makes the skin of the breast look red and feel warm. It also makes the skin look thick and pitted, something like an orange peel. The breast may get bigger, hard, tender, or itchy.
In its early stages, inflammatory breast cancer is often mistaken for infection. Because there is no defined lump, it may not show up on a mammogram, which may make it even harder to catch it early. It usually has a higher chance of spreading and a worse outlook than invasive ductal or lobular cancer. For more details, see our document, Inflammatory Breast Cancer.
There are also many other less common types of breast cancer. You can get details about these through our toll-free number or on our Web site.
The American Cancer Society's most recent estimates for breast cancer in the United States are for 2010:
- About 207,090 new cases of invasive breast cancer in women
- About 54,010 new cases of carcinoma in situ (CIS) will be found (CIS is non-invasive and is the earliest form of breast cancer).
- About 39,840 deaths from breast cancer (women)
Breast cancer is the most common cancer among women in the United States, other than skin cancer. It is the second leading cause of cancer death in women, after lung cancer.
The chance of a woman having invasive breast cancer some time during her life is a little less 1 in 8. The chance of dying from breast cancer is about 1 in 35. Breast cancer death rates have been going down. This is probably the result of finding the cancer earlier and better treatment. Right now there are more than 2½ million breast cancer survivors in the United States.
What causes breast cancer?
Certain changes in DNA can cause normal breast cells to become cancer. DNA is the chemical in each of our cells that makes up our genes -- the instructions for how our cells work. Some inherited DNA changes (mutations) can increase the risk for developing cancer and cause the cancers that run in some families. For instance, BRCA1 and BRCA2 are tumor suppressor genes -- they keep cancer tumors from forming. When they are changed (mutated), they no longer cause cells to die at the right time, and cancer is more likely to develop.
But most breast cancer DNA changes happen in single breast cells during a woman's life rather than having been inherited. So far, the causes of most of the DNA mutations that could lead to breast cancer are not known.
While we do not yet know exactly what causes breast cancer, we do know that certain risk factors are linked to the disease. A risk factor is something that affects your chance of getting a disease such as cancer. Different cancers have different risk factors. Some risk factors, such as smoking, drinking, and diet are linked to things a person does. Others, like a person's age, race, or family history, can't be changed.
But risk factors don't tell us everything. Having a risk factor, or even several, doesn't mean that a woman will get breast cancer. Some women who have one or more risk factors never get the disease. And most women who do get breast cancer don't have any risk factors. Some risk factors have a greater impact than others, and your risk for breast cancer can change over time, due to factors such as aging or lifestyle.
Although many risk factors may increase your chance of having breast cancer, it is not yet known just how some of these risk factors cause cells to become cancer. Hormones seem to play a role in many cases of breast cancer, but just how this happens is not fully understood.
Risk factors you cannot change
Gender: Being a woman is the main risk for breast cancer. While men also get the disease, it is about 100 times more common in women than in men.
Age: The chance of getting breast cancer goes up as a woman gets older. About 2 out of 3 women with invasive breast cancer are 55 or older when the cancer is found.
Genetic risk factors: About 5% to 10% of breast cancers are thought to be linked to inherited changes (mutations) in certain genes. The most common gene changes are those of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. Women with these gene changes have up to an 80% chance of getting breast cancer during their lifetimes. Other gene changes may raise breast cancer risk, too.
Family history: Breast cancer risk is higher among women whose close blood relatives have this disease. The relatives can be from either the mother's or father's side of the family. Having a mother, sister, or daughter with breast cancer about doubles a woman's risk. (It's important to note that 70% to 80% of women who get breast cancer do not have a family history of this disease.)
Personal history of breast cancer: A woman with cancer in one breast has a greater chance of getting a new cancer in the other breast or in another part of the same breast. This is different from a return of the first cancer (called recurrence).
Race: White women are slightly more likely to get breast cancer than African-American women. But African American women are more likely to die of breast cancer. At least part of the reason seems to be because African-American women have faster growing tumors, but we don't know why this is the case. Asian, Hispanic, and Native-American women have a lower risk of getting and dying from breast cancer.
Dense breast tissue: Dense breast tissue means there is more gland tissue and less fatty tissue. Women with denser breast tissue have a higher risk of breast cancer. Dense breast tissue can also make it harder for doctors to spot problems on mammograms.
Certain benign (not cancer) breast problems: Women who have certain benign breast changes may have an increased risk of breast cancer. Some of these are more closely linked to breast cancer risk than others. For more details about these, see our document, Non-cancerous Breast Conditions.
Lobular carcinoma in situ: Women with lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS) have a 7 to 11 times greater risk of developing cancer in either breast.
Menstrual periods: Women who began having periods early (before age 12) or who went through the change of life (menopause) after the age of 55 have a slightly increased risk of breast cancer. They have had more menstrual periods and as a result have been exposed to more of the hormones estrogen and progesterone.
Earlier breast radiation: Women who have had radiation treatment to the chest area (as treatment for another cancer) earlier in life have a greatly increased risk of breast cancer. The risk varies with the patient's age when they had radiation. The risk from chest radiation is highest if the radiation were given during the teens, when the breasts were still developing. Radiation treatment after age 40 does not seem to increase breast cancer risk.
Treatment with DES: In the past, some pregnant women were given the drug DES (diethylstilbestrol) because it was thought to lower their chances of losing the baby (miscarriage). Recent studies have shown that these women (and their daughters who were exposed to DES while in the womb), have a slightly increased risk of getting breast cancer. For more information on DES see our document, DES Exposure: Questions and Answers.
Breast cancer risk and lifestyle choices
Not having children or having them later in life: Women who have had not had children, or who had their first child after age 30, have a slightly higher risk of breast cancer. Being pregnant many times and at an early age reduces breast cancer risk. Being pregnant lowers a woman's total number of lifetime menstrual cycles, which may be the reason for this effect.
Recent use of birth control pills: Studies have found that women who are using birth control pills have a slightly greater risk of breast cancer than women who have never used them. This risk seems to go back to normal over time once the pills are stopped. Women who stopped using the pill more than 10 years ago do not seem to have any increased risk. It's a good idea to talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of birth control pills.
Using post-menopausal hormone therapy (PHT): Post-menopausal hormone therapy (also known as hormone replacement therapy or HRT), has been used for many years to help relieve symptoms of menopause and to help prevent thinning of the bones (osteoporosis).
There are 2 main types of PHT. For women who still have a womb (uterus), doctors most often prescribe estrogen and progesterone (known as combined PHT). Estrogen alone can increase the risk of cancer of the uterus, so progesterone is added to help prevent this. For women who no longer have a uterus (those who've had a hysterectomy), estrogen alone can be prescribed. This is known as estrogen replacement therapy (ERT).
- Combined PHT: Use of combined PHT increases the risk of getting breast cancer. It may also increase the chances of dying from breast cancer. Breast cancer may also be found at a more advanced stage. Five years after stopping PHT, the breast cancer risk seems to drop back to normal.
- ERT: The use of estrogen alone does not seem to increase the risk of developing breast cancer very much, if at all. But when used long-term (for more than 10 years), some studies have found that ERT increases the risk of ovarian and breast cancer.
At this time, there seem to be few strong reasons to use PHT, other than for short-term relief of menopausal symptoms. Because there are other factors to think about, you should talk with your doctor about the pros and cons of using PHT. If a woman and her doctor decide to try PHT for symptoms of menopause, it is usually best to use it at the lowest dose that works for her and for as short a time as possible.
Not breast-feeding: Some studies have shown that breast-feeding slightly lowers breast cancer risk, especially if the breast-feeding lasts 1½ to 2 years. This could be because breast-feeding lowers a woman's total number of menstrual periods, as does pregnancy
Alcohol: Use of alcohol is clearly linked to an increased risk of getting breast cancer. Women who have one drink a day have a very small increased risk. Those who have 2 to 5 drinks daily have about 1½ times the risk of women who drink no alcohol. The American Cancer Society suggests limiting the amount you drink to one drink a day.
Being overweight or obese: Being overweight or obese is linked to a higher risk of breast cancer, especially for women after change of life or if the weight gain took place during adulthood. Also, the risk seems to be higher if the extra fat is around the waist. But the link between weight and breast cancer risk is complex. And studies of fat in the diet as it relates to breast cancer risk have often given conflicting results. The American Cancer Society recommends you stay at a healthy weight throughout your life and avoid gaining too much weight.
Lack of exercise: Studies show that exercise reduces breast cancer risk. The only question is how much exercise is needed. One study found that as little as 1 hour and 15 minutes to 2½ hours of brisk walking per week reduced the risk by 18%. Walking 10 hours a week reduced the risk a little more. The American Cancer Society suggests that you exercise for 45 to 60 minutes 5 or more days a week.
Uncertain risk factors
High fat diets: Studies of fat in the diet have not clearly shown that this is a breast cancer risk factor. Most studies found that breast cancer is less common in countries where the typical diet is low in fat. On the other hand, many studies of women in the United States have not found breast cancer risk to be linked to how much fat they ate. Researchers are still not sure how to explain this difference. More research is needed to better understand the effect of the types of fat eaten and body weight on breast cancer risk.
The American Cancer Society recommends eating a healthy diet that includes 5 or more servings of vegetables and fruits each day, choosing whole grains over processed (refined) grains, and limiting the amount of processed and red meats.
Antiperspirants and bras: Internet e-mail rumors have suggested that underarm antiperspirants can cause breast cancer. There is very little evidence to support this idea. Also, there is no evidence to support the idea that bras cause breast cancer.
Abortions: Several studies show that induced abortions do not increase the risk of breast cancer. Also, there is no evidence to show a direct link between miscarriages and breast cancer. For more detailed information, see our document, Is Having an Abortion Linked to Breast Cancer?
Breast implants: Silicone breast implants can cause scar tissue to form in the breast. But studies have found that this does not increase breast cancer risk. If you have breast implants, you might need special x-ray pictures during mammograms.
Pollution: A lot of research is being done to learn how the environment might affect breast cancer risk. At this time, research does not show a clear link between breast cancer risk and environmental pollutants.
Tobacco Smoke: Most studies have found no link between active cigarette smoking and breast cancer. An issue that continues to be a focus of research is whether secondhand smoke (smoke from another person's cigarette) may increase the risk of breast cancer. But the evidence about secondhand smoke and breast cancer risk in human studies is not clear. In any case, a possible link to breast cancer is yet another reason to avoid being around secondhand smoke.
Night Work: A few studies have suggested that women who work at night (nurses on the night shift, for instance) have a higher risk of breast cancer. This is a fairly recent finding, and more studies are being done to look at this.
There is no sure way to prevent breast cancer. But there are things all women can do that might reduce their risk and help increase the odds that if cancer does occur, it is found at an early, more treatable stage.
Lowering your risk: You can lower your risk of breast cancer by changing those risk factors that are under your control. If you limit alcohol use, exercise regularly, and stay at a healthy weight, you are decreasing your risk of getting breast cancer. Women who choose to breast-feed for at least several months may also reduce their breast cancer risk.
Not using post-menopausal hormone therapy (PHT) can also help you avoid raising your risk.
Finding breast cancer early: It is also important for women to follow the American Cancer Society's guidelines for finding breast cancer early. (See the section, "How is breast cancer found?")
For women who are or may be at increased risk
If you have a higher risk for breast cancer there may be some things you can do to reduce your chances of getting breast cancer. Before deciding which, if any, of these may be right for you, talk with your doctor.
Genetic testing: There are tests that can tell if a woman has certain changed (mutated) genes linked to breast cancer. With this information, women can then take steps to reduce their risk. Recently the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force made recommendations for genetic testing. They suggest that only women with a strong family history be evaluated for genetic testing for BRCA mutations. This group is only about 2% of adult women in the United States.
If you are thinking about genetic testing, you should talk to a genetic counselor, nurse, or doctor qualified to explain the process and the results of these tests. It is very important that you know what genetic testing can and can't tell you, and to carefully weigh the benefits and risks of testing before these tests are done. Testing costs a lot and may not be covered by some health insurance plans. For more information, see our document, Genetic Testing: What You Need to Know.
Breast cancer chemoprevention: Chemoprevention is the use of drugs to reduce the risk of cancer. Many drugs have been studied for use in lowering breast cancer risk. The drug Tamoxifen® has already been used for many years as a treatment for some types of breast cancer. Studies have shown that women at high risk for breast cancer are less likely to get the disease if they take tamoxifen. Another drug, Raloxifene®, has been approved to help reduce breast cancer risk in women past menopause who are at high risk for breast cancer. Other drugs (such as aromatase inhibitors) are also being studied. To learn more about these drugs, please see the American Cancer Society document, Medicines to Reduce Breast Cancer Risk.
Preventive surgery for women with very high breast cancer risk
For the few women who are at a very high risk for breast cancer, preventive surgery such as double mastectomy may be an option.
Preventive (prophylactic) double (bilateral) mastectomy: For some who are at very high risk for breast cancer, this surgery (a double mastectomy) may be an option. In this operation both breasts are removed before there is any known breast cancer. While this operation removes nearly all of the breast tissue, a small amount remains. This operation greatly reduces the risk of breast cancer, but the disease can still start in the breast tissue that is left.
The reasons for having this type of surgery need to be very strong. There is no way to know ahead of time whether this surgery will benefit a particular woman. The American Cancer Society Board of Directors has stated that "only very strong clinical and/or pathologic indications warrant doing this type of preventive operation." A second opinion is strongly recommended before making a decision to have this type of surgery.
Preventive ovary removal (prophylactic oophorectomy): Women with a certain gene change (BRCA mutation) who have their ovaries removed may reduce their risk of breast cancer by half or more. This is because taking out the ovaries removes the main sources of estrogen in the body.
Although this document is not about ovarian cancer, it is important that women with this gene change also know that they also have a high risk of getting ovarian cancer. Most doctors recommend that these women have their ovaries removed after they are done having children.
The term screening refers to tests and exams used to find a disease like cancer in people who do not have any symptoms. The earlier breast cancer is found, the better the chances that treatment will work. The goal is to find cancers before they start to cause symptoms. The size of a breast cancer and how far it has spread are the most important factors in predicting the outlook for the patient. Most doctors feel that tests for finding breast cancer early save many thousands of lives each year. Following the guidelines given here improves the chances that breast cancer can be found at an early stage and treated with success.
ACS recommendations for finding breast cancer early
The ACS recommends the following guidelines for finding breast cancer early in women without symptoms:
Mammogram: Women age 40 and older should have a screening mammogram every year and should keep on doing so for as long as they are in good health. While mammograms can miss some cancers, they are still a very good way to find breast cancer.
Clinical breast exam: Women in their 20s and 30s should have a clinical breast exam (CBE) as part of a regular exam by a health expert, at least every 3 years. After age 40, women should have a breast exam by a health expert every year. It might be a good idea to have the CBE shortly before the mammogram. You can use the exam to learn what your own breasts look and feel like.
Breast self-exam (BSE): BSE is an option for women starting in their 20s. Women should be told about the benefits and limitations of BSE. Women should report any changes in how their breasts look or feel to a health expert right away.
Research has shown that BSE plays a small role in finding breast cancer compared with finding a breast lump by chance or simply being aware of what is normal for each woman. If you decide to do BSE, you should have your doctor or nurse check your method to make sure you are doing it right. If you do BSE on a regular basis, you get to know how your breasts normally look and feel. Then you can more easily notice changes. But it's OK not to do BSE or not to do it on a fixed schedule.
The goal, with or without BSE, is to see a doctor right away if you notice any of these changes: a lump or swelling, skin irritation or dimpling, nipple pain or the nipple turning inward, redness or scaliness of the nipple or breast skin, or a discharge other than breast milk. But remember that most of the time these breast changes are not cancer.
Women at high risk: Women with a higher risk of breast cancer should talk with their doctor about the best screening plan for them. This might mean starting mammograms when they are younger, having extra screening tests (such as an MRI), or having exams more often.
A mammogram is an x-ray of the breast. A screening mammogram is used to look for breast disease in women who do not seem to have breast problems. A mammogram can also be used when women have symptoms such as a lump, skin change, or nipple discharge. This is called a diagnostic mammogram.
During a mammogram, the breast is pressed between 2 plates to flatten and spread the tissue. The pressure lasts only for a few seconds. Although this may cause some pain for a moment, it is needed to get a good picture. Very low levels of radiation are used. While many people are worried about exposure to x-rays, the low level of radiation used for mammograms does not increase the risk of breast cancer. You might think of it this way: if a woman with breast cancer is treated with radiation, she will get around 5,000 rads (a term used to measure radiation dose). If she had a mammograms every year from age 40 to age 90, she will have had 20 to 40 rads total.
For the mammogram, you undress above the waist. You will have a wrap to cover yourself. A technologist (most often a woman) will position your breast for the test. The pressure lasts only a few seconds while the picture is taken. The whole process takes about 20 minutes.
You should get your results within 30 days or even sooner.
About 1 in 10 women who get a mammogram will need more pictures taken. But most of these women do not have breast cancer, so try not to worry if this happens to you. Only 2 to 4 of every 1,000 mammograms leads to a diagnosis of cancer.
Help with mammogram costs
Medicare, Medicaid, and most private health plans cover all or part of the cost of this test. Call us at 1-800-227-2345 for information about facilities in your area. Breast cancer testing is available to women without health insurance and women who don't have coverage for breast cancer screening. It may be free or offered at very little cost through a special program called the National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program (NBCCEDP). Your state's Department of Health will have details about this program.
There is also a new program to help pay for breast cancer treatment for women in need. To learn more about these programs, you can contact the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at 1-800-CDC INFO (1-800-232-4636) or on the Internet at www.cdc.gov/cancer/nbccedp.
For more details about mammograms, please see our document, Mammograms and Other Breast Imaging Procedures.
Clinical breast exam
A clinical breast exam (CBE) is an exam of your breasts by a health expert such as a doctor, nurse practitioner, nurse, or physician assistant. For this exam, you undress from the waist up. The examiner will first look at your breasts for changes in size or shape. Then, using the pads of the fingers, she or he will gently feel your breasts for lumps. The area under both arms will also be checked. This is a good time to learn how to do breast self-exam if you don't already know how.
Breast awareness and breast self-exam
Women should be aware of how their breasts normally look and feel and report any changes to a doctor right away. Finding a change does not mean that you have cancer.
By being aware of how your own breasts look and feel, you are likely to notice any changes that might take place. You can also choose to use a step-by-step approach to checking your breasts on a set schedule. The best time to do breast self-examination (BSE) is when your breasts are not tender or swollen. If you find any changes, see a doctor right away.
Women with breast implants can do BSE. It may help to have the surgeon help you feel the edges of the implant so that you know where they are. It may be that the implants push out the breast tissue and actually make it easier to examine.
It's OK for women not to do BSE or to do it once in a while. We have detailed information on how to do BSE for women who want to do it. You can find it on our Web site or you can call and ask for it.
MRI (magnetic resonance imaging)
For certain women at high risk for breast cancer, screening MRI is recommended along with a yearly mammogram. It is not generally recommended as a screening tool by itself because it may miss some cancers that mammograms would find. MRI also costs more than mammograms. Most major insurance companies will likely pay for a screening MRI if a woman can be shown to be at high risk, but it's not yet clear if all companies will do so. More details about MRI can be found below.
Symptoms of breast cancer
The widespread use of screening mammograms has increased the number of breast cancers found before they cause any symptoms, but some are still missed.
The most common sign of breast cancer is a new lump or mass. A lump that is painless, hard, and has uneven edges is more likely to be cancer. But some cancers are tender, soft, and rounded. So it's important to have anything unusual checked by a doctor.
Other signs of breast cancer include the following:
- swelling of all or part of the breast
- skin irritation or dimpling
- breast pain
- nipple pain or the nipple turning inward
- redness, scaliness, or thickening of the nipple or breast skin
- a nipple discharge other than breast milk
Sometimes breast cancer can spread to lymph nodes under the arm and cause a lump or swelling there, even before the tumor in the breast tissue is large enough to be felt.
If you have any symptoms that might be a sign of breast cancer, be sure see a doctor as soon as you can. After asking you some questions and doing a complete physical exam (including a clinical breast exam), your doctor may want to do more tests, such as those listed below.
Mammograms: Although mammograms are mostly used for screening, they can also be used if there is a breast problem. These are called diagnostic mammograms. This kind of mammogram might show that everything is OK and you can go back to having yearly mammograms. Or it might show that a biopsy should be done. Even if the mammogram doesn't show a tumor, if you or your doctor can feel a lump you may need a biopsy. The exception would be if ultrasound (see below) shows that the lump is a cyst.
Mammograms often don't work as well in younger women, mostly because their breasts are dense and this can hide a tumor. This is also true for pregnant women and women who are breast feeding. Since most breast cancers occur in older women, this is usually not a major problem. But it is a problem for young women who have a genetic risk factor for breast cancer because they often get breast cancer at a younger age. For this reason, some doctors now suggest MRI along with mammograms for screening these women.
A mammogram cannot show for sure whether or not cancer is present. If your mammogram shows a possible problem, a sample of breast tissue is removed and looked at under a microscope. This is called a biopsy (see below).
MRI scans: MRI scans can be used along with mammograms for screening women who have a high risk of getting breast cancer. Or they can be used to look at areas of concern found on a mammogram. MRI is also used for women who have breast cancer in order to help figure out the size of the cancer.
MRI scans use radio waves and strong magnets instead of x-rays to make pictures. A contrast material called gadolinium is often put into a vein before the scan to better show details. MRI scans can take a long time -- often up to an hour. You have to lie inside a narrow tube, which may upset people with a fear of enclosed spaces. The machine makes loud buzzing and clicking noises that you may find disturbing. Some places will give you headphones with music to block this out.
Breast ultrasound: An ultrasound uses sound waves to outline a part of the body. The sound wave echoes are picked up by a computer to create a picture on a computer screen.
Ultrasound is a good test to use along with mammograms because it is widely available and costs less than other tests. But ultrasound should not be used instead of mammograms. Usually, it is used to look at a certain area of concern found by the mammogram. It sometimes helps to tell the difference between cysts and solid masses without using a needle to draw out fluid.
Ductogram (also called a galactogram): This is a special kind of x-ray that is sometimes helpful in finding the cause of a nipple discharge. A very thin plastic tube is placed into the opening of the duct at the nipple. A dye is injected to outline the shape of the duct on an x-ray picture. It will show if there is a tumor inside the duct. If there is a discharge, the fluid can be tested for cancer cells.
There are several other tests that can help tell the doctor more about your situation. Feel free to ask your doctor to explain any test to you. You can also contact us for more information.
A biopsy is done when other tests show that you might have breast cancer. The only way to know for sure is for you to have a biopsy. During this test, cells from the area of concern are removed so they can be studied in the lab. There are several kinds of biopsies. The doctor will use the one best for you.
Fine needle aspiration biopsy (FNAB): For this test, a very thin (fine), hollow needle is used to pull out fluid or tissue from the lump. Your doctor might use ultrasound to guide the needle into the lump. Medicine may be used to make the skin numb. The needle used in FNAB is thinner than the ones used for blood tests.
If the fluid drawn out is clear, the lump is most likely a benign cyst (not cancer). Bloody or cloudy fluid can mean either a cyst or, rarely, cancer. If the lump is solid, small pieces of tissue are taken out. These will be looked at under a microscope to see if they are cancer.
If the biopsy does not give a clear answer, or your doctor is still not sure, a second biopsy or a different type of biopsy may be needed.
Core needle biopsy: The needle used for this test is larger than the one for fine needle biopsy. It is used to remove one or more cores of tissue. The biopsy is done with local anesthesia (the area is numbed) in an outpatient setting.
Vacuum-assisted biopsies: These can be done with systems such as the Mammotome® or ATEC® (Automated Tissue Excision and Collection). First the skin is numbed and a small cut (incision) is made. A hollow probe is put through the cut into the breast tissue. A piece of tissue is sucked out. Several samples can be taken from the same cut. Vacuum-assisted biopsies are done as an outpatient procedure. No stitches are needed, and there is only a little scarring. This method usually removes more tissue than core biopsies.
Surgical biopsy: Sometimes surgery is needed to remove all or part of a lump so it can be looked at under a microscope. The whole lump as well as some normal tissue around it may be taken out. Most often this is done in the hospital's outpatient center. Local anesthesia is used (the area around the lump is numbed) and you may also be given drugs to relax you and make you less aware of the process. Ask your doctor which kind of biopsy you will have and what you can expect during and after the test.
Biopsy lab tests: The tissue removed during a biopsy is looked at in the lab to see whether it is benign (not cancer) or cancer. If it is not cancer, then no more treatment is needed. If it is cancer, the biopsy can help to tell the type of cancer it is and show whether it is invasive or not.
Breast cancer grade
If it is cancer, the biopsy sample is also given a grade from 1 to 3. Cancers that look more like normal breast tissue tend to grow and spread more slowly. As a rule, a lower grade number means a slower-growing cancer, while a higher number means a faster-growing cancer. The grade helps predict the outcome (prognosis) for the woman. The tumor grade is one factor in deciding the need for further treatment after surgery.
Hormone receptor status
Receptors are proteins on the outside surfaces of cells that can attach to hormones in the blood. Estrogen and progesterone are hormones that often attach to these receptors on some breast cancer cells to fuel their growth. The biopsy sample can be tested to see whether it has receptors for estrogen and/or progesterone. If it does, it is often referred to as ER-positive or PR-positive. Such cancers tend to have a better outlook than cancers without these receptors because they are much more likely to respond to hormone treatment. About 2 out of 3 breast cancers have at least one of these receptors.
About 1 out of 5 breast cancers have too much of a protein called HER2/neu. Tumors with increased levels of HER-2/neu are called "HER2-positive." These cancers tend to grow and spread faster than other breast cancers.
HER2/neu testing should be done on all newly diagnosed breast cancers. HER2-positive cancers can be treated with drugs that target the HER2/neu protein, such as trastuzumab (Herceptin®) and lapatinib (Tykerb®). See the section, "How is breast cancer treated?" for more information on these drugs.
Other lab tests may also be done to help figure out how quickly the cancer is growing and what treatments might work best.
Tests of gene patterns
Research has shown that looking at the patterns of a number of genes at the same time can help tell whether or not an early breast cancer is likely to come back after the first treatment. This can help when deciding whether more treatment, such as chemotherapy, might be useful. There are now 2 of these tests which look at different sets of genes -- Oncotype DX® and MammaPrint®. While some doctors are using these tests (along with other information) to help make decisions about offering chemotherapy, others are waiting for more research to show whether they are really helpful.
Staging is the process of finding out how widespread the cancer is at the time it is found. The stage of a cancer is the most important factor in choosing among treatment options. The stage is based on whether the cancer is invasive or non-invasive, the size of the tumor, how many lymph nodes are involved, and whether it has spread to other parts of the body.
Tests to find breast cancer spread
One or more of the following tests may be done to help find out how much the cancer may have spread.
Chest x-ray: This test may be done to see whether the cancer has spread to the lungs.
Mammogram: If they haven't been done already, more mammograms may be done to get better pictures of the breasts.
Bone scan: This test can help show whether the cancer has spread to the bones. For this test, a very low dose of radioactive material is put into a vein. The bone attracts this material which shows up on the scan as a "hot spot." These hot spots could be cancer, but other problems, like arthritis can also cause them. Other tests or even biopsy samples of the hot spots may be needed.
CT scan (computed tomography): A CT scan is a special type of x-ray. Pictures are taken from different angles and these are combined by a computer to make a detailed picture of the organs. In women with breast cancer, this test is most often used to look at the chest and/or belly (abdomen) to see if the cancer has spread to other organs. It can also be used to guide a biopsy needle into an area of concern.
Before the CT scan, you may be asked to drink a contrast liquid to outline your intestines. After the first set of pictures is taken you may get an IV (intravenous) line through which a contrast dye is put into your blood. A second set of pictures is then taken.
The contrast may cause some flushing (a feeling of warmth, especially in the face). Some people are allergic and get hives. Rarely, more serious reactions like trouble breathing or low blood pressure can happen. Before you have this test be sure to tell your doctor if you have ever had a reaction to any contrast material used for x-rays.
CT scans take longer than regular x-rays. You need to lie still on a table while they are being done. You might feel a bit confined by the ring you have to lie in while the pictures are being taken.
MRI (magnetic resonance imaging): An MRI scan takes pictures using radio waves and strong magnets instead of x-rays. This test can be helpful in looking at the brain and spinal cord. MRIs can be a more uncomfortable than CT scans because they take longer and you need to lie in a narrow tube while the test is done. The machine also makes a loud, thumping noise that you may find disturbing. Some centers provide headphones with music to block out the noise.
Ultrasound: This test is described in the section "How is breast cancer found?" as an imaging test of the breast. But ultrasound can also used to look for cancer that has spread to some other parts of the body.
PET scan (positron emission tomography): This test uses a form of sugar that contains a radioactive atom. The sugar is put into a vein and travels throughout the body. Cancer cells absorb high amounts of this sugar. A special camera can then spot these cells. PET is useful when the doctor thinks the cancer has spread but doesn't know where. Some of the newer machines are able to do both a PET and CT scan at the same time.
The TNM staging system
The most common system used to describe the stages of breast cancer is the AJCC/TNM system. This system takes into account the tumor size and spread (T), whether the cancer has spread to lymph nodes (N), and whether it has spread to distant organs (M, for metastasis). Numbers after the T, N, and M give details about the cancer.
All of this information is combined in a process called stage grouping. The stage is then expressed as a Roman numeral. After stage 0 (carcinoma in situ), the other stages are I through IV (1-4). Some of the stages are further sub-divided using the letters A, B, and C. As a rule, the lower the number, the less the cancer has spread. A higher number, such as stage IV (4), means a more advanced cancer. Cancers with similar stages tend to have a similar outlook and are often treated in much the same way.
After looking at your test results, the doctor will tell you the stage of your cancer. Breast cancer staging can be complex. Be sure to ask your doctor to explain your stage in a way you understand. This will help you both decide on the best treatment for you.
Survival rates for breast cancer
Some people with cancer may want to know the survival rates for their type of cancer. Others may not find the numbers helpful, or may even not want to know them. Whether or not you want to read about survival rates is up to you. Also, staging for breast cancer changed in 2010. The survival data listed here is based on the older staging system.
The 5-year survival rate refers to the percentage of patients who live at least 5 years after their cancer is found. Of course, many people live much longer than 5 years. Five-year relative survival rates leave out patients dying of other diseases. This means that anyone who died of another cause, such as heart disease, is not counted.
These numbers are based on women treated a number of years ago. Because we now find more cancers early and use newer, better treatments, the survival rates are getting better all the time.
5-year Relative Survival Rate
While these numbers provide an overall picture, keep in mind that every woman is unique and the statistics can't predict exactly what will happen in your case. Talk with your cancer care team if you have questions about your own chances of a cure or how long you might survive your cancer. They know your situation best.
Treatments can be put into broad groups based on how they work and when they are used.
Local or systemic treatment
Local treatment is used to treat a tumor without affecting the rest of the body. Surgery and radiation are examples of local treatment.
Systemic treatment is given into the bloodstream or by mouth and goes throughout the body to reach cancer cells that may have spread beyond the breast. Chemotherapy, hormone therapy, and targeted therapy are systemic treatments.
Adjuvant and neoadjuvant therapy
When people who seem to have no cancer left after surgery are given more treatment it is called adjuvant therapy. Doctors now think that cancer cells can break away from the main tumor and begin to spread through the bloodstream in the early stages of the disease. It's very hard to tell if this has happened. But if it has, the cancer cells can start new tumors in other organs or in the bones. The goal of adjuvant therapy is to kill these hidden cells. But not every patient needs adjuvant therapy.
Some people are given systemic treatment (most likely chemotherapy) before surgery to shrink a tumor. This is called neoadjuvant therapy.
Most women with breast cancer have some type of surgery to treat the main breast tumor. The purpose of surgery is to remove as much of the cancer as possible. Surgery can also be done to find out whether the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes under the arm, to restore the breast's shape after a mastectomy, or to relieve symptoms of advanced cancer. Below is a list of some of the most common types of breast cancer surgery.
In these types of surgery, only a part of the breast is removed. How much is removed depends on the size and place of the tumor and other factors.
Lumpectomy: This surgery removes only the breast lump and some normal tissue around it. Radiation treatment is usually given after this type of surgery. If chemotherapy is also going to be used, the radiation may be put off until the chemo is finished. If there is cancer at the edge (called the margin) of the piece of tissue that was removed, the surgeon may need to go back and take out more tissue.
Partial (segmental) mastectomy or quadrantectomy: This surgery removes more of the breast tissue than in a lumpectomy. It is usually followed by radiation therapy. But radiation may be delayed if chemotherapy is also going to be given.
Side effects of these operations can include pain, short-term swelling, tenderness, and hardness due to scar tissue that forms in the surgical site.
The more of breast removed, the more likely it is that there will be a change in the shape of the breast afterward. If the breasts look very different after surgery, you might be able to have some type of reconstructive surgery (see the section, "Reconstructive surgery"), or have the other breast made smaller to make the breasts look more alike. This might even be done during the first surgery. So you should talk with your doctor before surgery to get an idea of how your breasts are likely to look afterward, and to learn what your options might be.
Mastectomy involves removing of all of the breast tissue, sometimes along with other nearby tissues.
Simple or total mastectomy: In this surgery the entire breast is removed, but not the lymph nodes under the arm or the muscle tissue beneath the breast. Sometimes both breasts are removed, especially when mastectomy is done to try to prevent cancer. If a hospital stay is needed, most women can go home the next day.
For some women who are planning on having reconstruction right away, a skin-sparing mastectomy can be done. For this, most of the skin over the breast (other than the nipple and areola) is left intact. This can work as well as a simple mastectomy. The amount of breast tissue removed is the same as with a simple mastectomy. Although this approach has not been used for as long as the more standard type of mastectomy, many women prefer it because there is less scar tissue and the reconstructed breast seems more natural.
Modified radical mastectomy: This operation involves removing the entire breast and some of the lymph nodes under the arm. This is the most common surgery for women with breast cancer who are having the whole breast removed.
Radical mastectomy: This is a major operation where the surgeon removes the entire breast, underarm (axillary) lymph nodes, and the chest wall muscles under the breast. This surgery was once very common, but it is rarely done now because modified radical mastectomy has proven to work just as well. But this operation may still be done for large tumors that are growing into the muscles under the breast.
Possible side effects
Aside from pain after the surgery and the change in the shape of the breast(s), the possible side effects of mastectomy and breast-conserving surgery include wound infection, build-up of blood in the wound, and build-up of clear fluid in the wound. If axillary lymph nodes are also removed, other side effects are possible, such as swelling of the arm and chest (lymphedema).
Choosing between lumpectomy and mastectomy
Many women with early stage cancers can choose between breast-conserving surgery and mastectomy. One advantage of lumpectomy is that it saves the way the breast looks. A downside is the need for many weeks of radiation after surgery. On the other hand, some women who have a mastectomy will still need radiation.
When choosing between a lumpectomy and mastectomy, be sure to get all the facts. You may have an initial gut preference for mastectomy as a way to "take it all out as quickly as possible." Women tend to prefer mastectomy more often than their surgeons do because of this feeling. But the fact is that for most women with stage I or II breast cancer, lumpectomy or partial mastectomy (along with radiation) is as good as mastectomy. There is no difference in the survival rates of women treated with these 2 methods. Other factors, though, can affect which type of surgery is best for you. And lumpectomy is not an option for all women with breast cancer. Your doctor can tell you if there are reasons why a lumpectomy is not right for you.
Other breast cancer surgeries
Axillary lymph node dissection: This operation is done to find out whether the breast cancer has spread to lymph nodes under the arm. Some nodes are removed and looked at under a microscope. Axillary dissection is used as a test to help guide other breast cancer treatment decisions.
A possible side effect of removing these lymph nodes is swelling of the arm, called lymphedema. This happens in about 3 out of 10 women who have had these nodes removed. Sometimes the swelling lasts for only a few weeks and then goes away. Other times, the swelling lasts a long time. Ways to help prevent or reduce the effects of lymphedema are discussed in the section, "What happens after treatment for breast cancer?" If your arm is swollen, tight, or painful after lymph node surgery, be sure to tell someone on your cancer care team right away.
Sentinel lymph node biopsy: A sentinel lymph node biopsy is a way to look at the lymph nodes without having to remove all of them. For this test, a radioactive substance and/or a dye are injected near the tumor. This is carried by the lymph system to the first (sentinel) node(s) that get lymph from the tumor. This lymph node (or nodes) is the one most likely to contain cancer cells if the cancer has spread. These nodes (often 2 or 3) are then looked at by the pathologist. If the sentinel nodes contain cancer, more lymph nodes are removed. If they are free of cancer, further lymph node surgery might not be needed. This type of biopsy calls for a great deal of skill, so it is best to have it done by a team who has experience with it.
Reconstructive or breast implant surgery: After having a mastectomy (or some breast-conserving surgeries), a woman may want to think about having the breast mound rebuilt. These operations are not meant to treat the cancer. They are done to restore the way the breast looks. If you are having breast surgery and are thinking about having breast reconstruction, you should talk to a plastic surgeon before your operation. There are choices to be made, such as when the surgery can be done and exactly what type it will be.
You can get more detailed information about the different types of surgery and their possible side effects in our document, Breast Reconstruction After Mastectomy. You may also find it helpful to talk with a woman who has had the type of reconstruction you are thinking about. Our Reach to Recovery volunteers can help you with this. Call us if you would like to speak to one of these volunteers.
What to expect with surgery
For many people, the thought of surgery can be frightening. But knowing what to expect before, during, and afterwards may help ease your fears.
Before surgery: A few days after your biopsy you will know whether or not you have cancer, but the extent of the disease will not be known until after surgery. You will most likely meet with your surgeon a few days before the operation to talk about what will happen. You will be asked to sign a consent form giving the doctor permission to do the surgery. This is a good time to ask any questions you might have.
You may be asked to donate blood ahead of time in case you need it during the surgery. Your doctor will also ask you about medicines, vitamins, or supplements you are taking. You might need to stop taking some of them a week or 2 before surgery.
You will also meet with the health professional who will be giving you the anesthesia (drugs to make you sleep and not feel pain) during your surgery. The type of anesthesia used depends largely on the kind of surgery being done and your medical history.
Surgery: For your surgery, you may be offered the choice of an outpatient procedure or you may be admitted to the hospital. General anesthesia, when drugs are used to put you into a deep sleep, is usually given for a mastectomy or an axillary node dissection, and is most often used during breast-conserving surgery, too. You will have an IV line put in (usually into a vein in your arm). It will be used to give medicines that may be needed during the surgery. You will be hooked up to an electrocardiogram (EKG) machine and have a blood pressure cuff on your arm, so your heart rhythm and blood pressure can be checked during the surgery.
How long the surgery will take depends on the type of surgery being done. For example, a mastectomy with lymph node removal will take from 2 to 3 hours. After your surgery, you will be taken to the recovery room, where you will stay until you are awake and your vital signs (blood pressure, pulse, and breathing) are stable.
After surgery: How long you stay in the hospital depends on the type of surgery you had, your overall state of health, whether you have any other medical problems, how well you do during the surgery, and how you feel after the surgery. You and your doctor should decide how long you need to stay in the hospital -- not your insurance company. Still, it is important to check your insurance coverage before surgery.
As a rule, women having a mastectomy stay in the hospital for 1 or 2 nights and then go home. But some women may be placed in a 23-hour, short-stay unit before going home.
Less involved operations such as lumpectomy and sentinel lymph node biopsy are usually done on an outpatient basis and an overnight hospital stay is not needed.
After surgery you may have a bandage over the surgery site that wraps snugly around your chest. You may have one or more tubes (drains) from the breast or underarm area to remove fluid that collects during the healing process. Most drains stay in place for 1 or 2 weeks. Once the flow has gone down to about 1 ounce a day, the drain will be removed.
Most doctors will want you to start moving your arm soon after surgery so that it won't get stiff. Many women who have a lumpectomy or mastectomy are surprised by how little pain they have in the breast area. But they are less happy with the strange feelings (numbness, pinching/pulling) in the underarm area.
Talk with your doctor about what you should do after the surgery to care for yourself. You should get written instructions that will tell you about the following:
- How to take care of the wound and dressing
- How to take care of the drains
- How to know if you have an infection
- When to call the doctor or nurse
- When to begin using the arm and how to do arm exercises to prevent stiffness
- When to start wearing a bra again
- When and how to wear a breast form (sometimes called a prosthesis)
- What to eat and what not to eat
- What medicines to take (including pain medicines and maybe antibiotics)
- What activities you should or should not do
- What feelings you might have about how you look
- When to see your doctor for a follow-up appointment
- How to contact a Reach to Recovery volunteer -- these specially trained women have had breast cancer and can offer information, comfort, and support.
Most patients see their doctor about 7 to 14 days after the surgery. Your doctor should explain the results of your pathology report and talk to you about whether you will need more treatment.
Pain after a mastectomy
Nerve pain after a mastectomy or lumpectomy is called post-mastectomy pain syndrome or PMPS. The signs of PMPS are chest wall pain and tingling down the arm. Pain may also be felt in the shoulder, scar, arm, or armpit. Other common complaints include numbness, shooting or pricking pain, or unbearable itching.
It is important to talk to your doctor about any pain you are having. PMPS can cause you to not use your arm the way you should and over time you might not be able to use it normally.
PMPS can be treated. Medicines commonly used to treat pain may not work well for nerve pain. But there are other medicines and treatments that do work for this kind of pain. Talk to your doctor to get the pain control you need.
Radiation therapy is treatment with high-energy rays (such as x-rays) to kill cancer cells or shrink tumors. This treatment may be used to kill any cancer cells that remain in the breast, chest wall, or underarm area after breast-conserving surgery. Radiation therapy can be given in 2 main ways.
External beam radiation
Most often, external beam radiation is used for treating breast cancer. It is much like getting a regular x-ray but for a longer time. Radiation therapy may be used to kill cancer cells remaining in the breast, chest wall, or underarm area after surgery or, less often, to shrink a tumor before surgery.
Treatment is usually given 5 days a week (Monday through Friday) in an outpatient center. It starts about a month after surgery and lasts about 6 weeks. Each treatment lasts a few minutes. The treatment itself is painless. Ink marks or small tattoos may be put on your skin. These will be used as a guide to focus the radiation on the right area. You may want to talk to your health care team to find out if these marks will be permanent. If it is used along with chemotherapy, radiation is usually given after chemotherapy is finished.
Accelerated breast irradiation: Newer methods now being studied involve giving radiation over a much shorter period of time. This is called accelerated radiation. In one approach, larger doses of radiation are given each day, but the course of radiation is shortened to only 5 days. In another approach, one large dose of radiation is given in the operating room right after lumpectomy (before the skin is closed). Most doctors still consider accelerated radiation to be experimental at this time.
Possible side effects of external beam radiation: The main side effects of radiation are swelling and heaviness in the breast, sunburn-like changes in the skin over the treated area, and feeling very tired. The changes to the breast tissue and skin usually go away in 6 to 12 months. In some women, the breast gets smaller and firmer after radiation therapy. Radiation of axillary lymph nodes also can cause long-term arm swelling called lymphedema. You can get more information on lymphedema in the "Moving on after treatment" section.
Another way to give radiation is to place radioactive seeds (pellets) into the breast tissue next to the cancer. It may be given along with external beam radiation to add an extra “boost” of radiation to the tumor. It is also being studied as the only source of radiation. So far the results have been good, but more study is needed before brachytherapy alone can be used as standard treatment.
One method of brachytherapy being used is called Mammosite®. It uses of a balloon attached to a thin tube. The balloon is put into the lumpectomy space and filled with salt water. Radioactivity is added through the tube. The radioactive material is added and removed twice a day (on an outpatient basis) for 5 days. Then the balloon is deflated and removed.
This type of brachytherapy can also be thought of as a form of accelerated breast irradiation. At this time there are no studies comparing outcomes with this type of radiation directly with standard external beam radiation. It is not known if the long-term outcomes will be as good.
Chemotherapy (often called just "chemo") is the use of cancer-killing drugs. These drugs can be put into a vein, given as a shot, or taken as a pill or liquid. They enter the bloodstream and go throughout the body, making this treatment useful for cancers that have spread to distant organs. While these drugs kill cancer cells, they also damage some normal cells, which can lead to side effects.
When is chemo used?
There are several cases where chemo may be used.
Adjuvant chemo: Treatment given to patients after surgery who do not seem to have any spread of cancer is called adjuvant therapy. When used this way after breast-conserving surgery or mastectomy, chemo reduces the risk of the breast cancer coming back.
Even in the early stages of the disease, cancer cells can break away from the first breast tumor and spread through the bloodstream. These cells don't cause symptoms, they don't show up on an x-ray, and they can't be felt during a physical exam. But if they are allowed to grow, they can form new tumors in other places in the body. Adjuvant chemo can be given to find and kill these cells.
Neoadjuvant chemo: Chemo given before surgery is called neoadjuvant therapy. The major benefit of this approach is that it can shrink large cancers so that they are small enough to be removed by lumpectomy instead of mastectomy. Another possible advantage is that doctors can see how the cancer responds to the chemo. If the tumor does not shrink, then different drugs may be needed. So far, it is not clear that neoadjuvant chemo improves survival, but it works at least as well as adjuvant therapy after surgery.
Chemo for advanced breast cancer: Chemo can also be used as the main treatment for women with cancer that has already spread outside the breast and underarm area at the time it is found, or if it spreads after the first treatments.
How is chemo given?
In most cases chemo works best if more than one drug is used. Doctors give chemo in cycles, with each round of treatment followed by a rest period. The time between treatments is most often 2 or 3 weeks and varies according to the drug or combination of drugs being used. The total course of treatment usually lasts for 3 to 6 months. Treatment may be longer for advanced breast cancer.
Dose-dense chemo: Doctors have found that giving the cycles of chemo closer together can lower the chance that the cancer will come back and improve survival in some women. This usually means giving the same chemo that is normally given every 3 weeks but giving it every 2 weeks. A drug called a growth factor is also given to help boost the white blood cell count. This approach can lead to more side effects and be harder to take, so it is only used for adjuvant treatment in women with a higher chance of the cancer coming back after treatment.
Possible side effects
The side effects of chemo depend on the type of drugs used, the amount given, and the length of treatment. You could experience some of these short-term side effects:
- hair loss
- mouth sores
- loss of appetite
- nausea and vomiting
- a higher risk of infection (from low white blood cell counts)
- changes in menstrual cycle (this could be permanent)
- easy bruising or bleeding (from low blood platelet counts)
- being very tired (called fatigue, often caused by low red blood cell counts or other reasons)
Most of these side effects go away when treatment is over. For example, your hair will grow back and your blood counts will return to normal. If you have any problems with side effects, be sure to tell your doctor or nurse because there are often ways to help.
Menstrual changes: For younger women, changes in menstrual periods are another possible side effect of chemo. Permanent side effects can include early change of life (menopause) and not being able to become pregnant (infertility). But being on chemo does not always prevent pregnancy and getting pregnant while on chemo can lead to birth defects. If you are having sex, you should discuss birth control with your cancer doctor. If you are pregnant when you get breast cancer, you still can be treated. Chemo can be safely given during the last 2 trimesters of pregnancy.
Neuropathy: Some drugs used to treat breast cancer can damage nerves. This can sometimes lead to symptoms (mainly in the hands and feet) such as pain, burning or tingling, sensitivity to cold or heat, or weakness. In most cases this goes away once treatment is stopped, but it may be long-lasting in some women. You can learn more about this in our document Peripheral Neuropathy Caused by Chemotherapy.
Heart damage: Some of the drugs may cause heart damage if used for a long time or in high doses. Doctors are careful to control the doses of these drugs and watch for signs of problems.
Chemo brain: Many women who have had chemo notice a change in concentration and memory. This is often called “chemo brain.” It may last a long time. Still, most women function well after chemo. In studies that have found chemo brain to be a side effect of treatment, the symptoms most often go away in a few years. For more information, see our document, Chemo Brain.
Increased risk of leukemia: Very rarely, years after treatment for breast cancer, certain chemo drugs may cause another cancer called acute myeloid leukemia (AML). But for most women the benefit of treating the breast cancer far outweighs the risk of this rare event.
Feeling unwell or tired: Many women do not feel as healthy after having chemo as they did before. Extreme tiredness, called fatigue, can be another long-lasting problem for women who have had chemo. This may last for many years, but it can be helped. Talk to your doctor if fatigue is a problem for you. You can also get more information in our document Fatigue in People with Cancer.
Hormone therapy is another form of systemic therapy. It is most often used to help reduce the risk of the cancer coming back after surgery, but it may also be used for breast cancer that has spread or come back after treatment.
The female hormone estrogen promotes the growth of breast cancer cells in some women (those who have ER-positive cancers). For these women, things are done to block the effect of estrogen or lower its levels in order to treat breast cancer.
Drugs used to change hormone levels
Tamoxifen® and toremifene (Fareston®): Drugs like tamoxifen can be given to counter the effects of estrogen. Tamoxifen is taken in pill or liquid form, usually every day for up to 5 years after surgery, to reduce the risk the cancer will come back. This drug helps women with early breast cancer if their cancer has estrogen receptors (is ER-positive). It is also used to treat breast cancer that has spread and to reduce the risk of breast cancer in women who are at high risk.
This drug has side effects. The most common ones are tiredness, hot flashes, vaginal discharge, and mood swings. Some studies have shown an increase of early stage cancer of the lining of the uterus among women taking tamoxifen. But this cancer is usually found at a very early stage and is almost always cured by surgery. If you are taking tamoxifen and have any unusual vaginal bleeding you should tell your doctor right away. Blood clots are another possible side effect of tamoxifen. Still, for most women with breast cancer, the benefits of tamoxifen far outweigh the risks.
Fulvestrant: Fulvestrant (Faslodex®) is a drug that acts by damaging the estrogen receptor instead of blocking it. It often works even if the breast cancer is no longer responding to tamoxifen. It is given as a shot once a month. Hot flashes, mild nausea, and tiredness are the major side effects. Right now it is only used in post-menopausal women with advanced breast cancer that no longer responds to tamoxifen or toremifene.
Aromatase inhibitors: These are drugs that stop the body from making estrogen. They only work for women who are past menopause and whose cancers are hormone-receptor positive. These drugs may be used after, or even instead of tamoxifen to reduce the chance of the breast cancer coming back. These drugs are taken daily as pills.
For women after menopause, most doctors now recommend using an aromatase inhibitor at some point during adjuvant therapy. But it's not yet clear if starting adjuvant therapy with one of these drugs is better than giving tamoxifen and then switching to an aromatase inhibitor. And if tamoxifen is given first, it's not clear how long it should be given. The best length of treatment with aromatase inhibitors is not clear. Studies now being done should help answer these questions.
These drugs don't cause uterine cancer and very rarely cause blood clots. But they can cause bone thinning and fractures because they remove estrogens from the body. The most common side effect of these drugs is joint stiffness and/or pain like the feeling of having arthritis in many different joints at one time.
Surgery to change hormone levels
Removing the ovaries (ovarian ablation): In pre-menopausal women, the ovaries are the main source of estrogens. Removing them or shutting them down takes away almost all the estrogen and makes the woman post-menopausal. This may allow some other hormone therapies to work better. Ovarian ablation can be done permanently by taking out the ovaries in surgery. It also can be done with drugs. Both of these methods can cause a woman to have symptoms of menopause, including hot flashes, night sweats, vaginal dryness, and mood swings.
Other ways to change hormone levels
Androgens (male hormones) may be used after other hormone treatments for advanced breast cancer have been tried. They sometimes work, but they can cause women to develop male traits, like an increase in body hair and a deeper voice.
As we have learned more about the gene changes that cause cancer, researchers have been able develop newer drugs that are aimed right at these changes. These targeted drugs do not work the same as standard chemo drugs. They often have different and less severe side effects. At this time, they are most often used along with chemo.
This is a monoclonal antibody -- a man-made version of a very specific immune system protein. It attaches to the growth-promoting protein called HER2/neu. HER2/neu is found in small amounts on the surface of normal breast cells and in large amounts on some breast cancer cells. Breast cancers that have too much of this protein are called HER2/neu-positive. The protein makes them grow and spread faster. Herceptin can stop this protein from causing breast cancer cell growth. It may also help the immune system to better attack the cancer.
Herceptin is given into a vein (IV), usually once a week or as a larger dose every 3 weeks. Doctors do not yet know how long it should be given, but studies are looking at this.
The side effects of this drug are fairly mild. They may include fever and chills, weakness, nausea, vomiting, cough, diarrhea, and headache. These side effects are less common after the first dose. But some women may develop heart damage during treatment. For most (but not all) women, this effect has been short-term and bets better when the drug is stopped. If you are getting Herceptin, you should tell your doctor right away if you have any shortness of breath, swelling, or trouble with physical activities.
This is another drug that targets the HER2/neu protein. This drug is given as a pill, most often along with chemo. It is used for some women with cancer that is no longer helped by chemo and Herceptin. The most common side effects with this drug include diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, rash, and hand-foot syndrome, which may include numbness, tingling, redness, swelling, and pain in the hands and feet. Diarrhea is common and can be bad. It is very important to let your health care team know about any changes in your bowel habits as soon as they happen.
This is another monoclonal antibody that may be used in patients with breast cancer that has spread. It is always used along with other chemo drugs. This antibody helps to keep tumors from making new blood vessels to feed the tumor. Avastin is given by intravenous (IV) infusion. There can be some rare, though serious, side effects and high blood pressure is very common. It very important that your doctor watches your blood pressure carefully during treatment and that you let your health care team know about any changes in how you feel.
Bisphosphonates are drugs that are used when breast cancer has spread to the bones. These drugs can strengthen bones that have been weakened by invading breast cancer cells and reduce the risk of fractures or breaks. Bisphosphonates may also help prevent bone thinning (osteoporosis) that can result from treatment with aromatase inhibitors (see above) or from early menopause caused by chemo. These drugs are given into a vein (IV).
Bisphosphonates can have side effects, including flu-like symptoms and bone pain. A rare but serious side effect from bisphosphonates is damage in the jaw bone. It can be triggered by having a tooth pulled while being treated with the bisphosphonate. It often appears as an open sore in the jaw that won't heal. Doctors don't know why this happens. Some cancer doctors recommend that patients have a dental check-up and have any tooth or jaw problems treated before they start taking bisphosphonates.
In the past, it was thought that very high doses of chemo followed by a stem cell transplant might offer some women the best chance for a cure -- especially those women with a high risk of the cancer coming back or with advanced cancer. But doctors have found that the women who had high-dose therapy did not live any longer than women who had standard dose chemo. And high-dose chemo with stem cell support can cause serious side effects. Research in this area is still going on. For now, experts in the field suggest that women get this treatment only as part of a clinical trial.
When cancer comes back after treatment, it is called a recurrence. The cancer can come back in the same breast or near the mastectomy scar (this is called local recurrence), or farther away (distant recurrence). Cancer that is found in the opposite breast is not a recurrence -- it is a new cancer that requires its own treatment.
Local recurrence: Treatment of women whose breast cancer has recurred locally depends on what treatment was used before. If the woman had breast-conserving therapy, a mastectomy is usually done. If the first treatment was mastectomy, recurrence near the mastectomy site is treated by removing the tumor whenever possible. This is followed by radiation therapy, but only if none had been given after the first surgery. (Radiation can't be given to the same area twice.) In either case, hormone therapy, trastuzumab, chemo, or some combination of these may be used after surgery and/or radiation therapy.
Distant recurrence: As a rule, women who have a cancer recurrence that has spread beyond the breast and lymph nodes to other parts of the body (like the bones, lungs, brain, etc.), are treated with systemic therapy. Surgery and/or radiation may be useful in some cases, but they are not very likely to cure these cancers, so systemic therapy is the main treatment. Depending on many factors, this may be hormone therapy, chemo, targeted therapies such as trastuzumab (Herceptin) or bevacizumab (Avastin), or some combination of these treatments.
Should your cancer come back, the American Cancer Society document, When Your Cancer Comes Back: Cancer Recurrence can give you information on how to manage and cope with this phase of your treatment.
Treatment for pregnant women with breast cancer depends on how long the woman has been pregnant.
Radiation therapy during pregnancy is known to increase the risk of birth defects, so it is not recommended for pregnant women with breast cancer. Because if this, breast-conserving therapy (lumpectomy and radiation therapy) is only an option if treatment can wait until it is safe to deliver the baby. A breast biopsy and even modified radical mastectomy are safe for the mother and the baby.
For a long time it was thought that chemo was dangerous to the baby. But some recent studies have found that using certain chemo drugs during the fourth to ninth months does not increase the risk of birth defects. The safety of chemo during the first 3 months of pregnancy has not been studied.
Hormone therapy may affect the baby and should not be started until after the patient has given birth.
Many chemo and hormone therapy drugs can enter breast milk and could be passed on to the baby, so breast-feeding is not usually recommended if the woman is having these treatments.
For more information, see our document, Pregnancy and Breast Cancer.
You may have had to make a lot of decisions since you've been told you have cancer. One of the most important decisions you will make is deciding which treatment is best for you. You may have heard about clinical trials being done for your type of cancer. Or maybe someone on your health care team has mentioned a clinical trial to you.
Clinical trials are carefully controlled research studies that are done with patients who volunteer for them. They are done to get a closer look at promising new treatments or procedures.
If you would like to take part in a clinical trial, you should start by asking your doctor if your clinic or hospital conducts clinical trials. You can also call our clinical trials matching service for a list of clinical trials that meet your medical needs. You can reach this service at 1-800-303-5691 or on our Web site at http://clinicaltrials.cancer.org. You can also get a list of current clinical trials by calling the National Cancer Institute's Cancer Information Service toll-free at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237) or by visiting the NCI clinical trials Web site at www.cancer.gov/clinicaltrials.
There are requirements you must meet to take part in any clinical trial. If you do qualify for a clinical trial, it is up to you whether or not to enter (enroll in) it.
Clinical trials are one way to get state-of-the art cancer treatment. They are the only way for doctors to learn better methods to treat cancer. Still, they are not right for everyone.
You can get a lot more information on clinical trials, in our document called Clinical Trials: What You Need to Know. You can read it on our Web site or call our toll-free number and have it sent to you.
When you have cancer you are likely to hear about ways to treat your cancer or relieve symptoms that your doctor hasn't mentioned. Everyone from friends and family to Internet groups and Web sites offer ideas for what might help you. These methods can include vitamins, herbs, and special diets, or other methods such as acupuncture or massage, to name a few.
What are complementary and alternative therapies?
It can be confusing because not everyone uses these terms the same way, and they are used to refer to many different methods. We use complementary to refer to treatments that are used along with your regular medical care. Alternative treatments are used instead of a doctor's medical treatment.
Complementary methods: Most complementary treatment methods are not offered as cures for cancer. Mainly, they are used to help you feel better. Some examples of methods that are used along with regular treatment are meditation to reduce stress, acupuncture to help relieve pain, or peppermint tea to relieve nausea. Some complementary methods are known to help, while others have not been tested. Some have been proven not be helpful, and a few are even harmful.
Alternative treatments: Alternative treatments may be offered as cancer cures. These treatments have not been proven safe and effective in clinical trials. Some of these methods may be harmful, or have life-threatening side effects. But the biggest danger in most cases is that you may lose the chance to be helped by standard medical treatment. Delays or interruptions in your medical treatments may give the cancer more time to grow and make it less likely that treatment will help.
Finding out more
It is easy to see why people with cancer think about alternative methods. You want to do all you can to fight the cancer, and the idea of a treatment with no side effects sounds great. Sometimes medical treatments like chemotherapy can be hard to take, or they may no longer be working. But the truth is that most of these alternative methods have not been tested and proven to work in treating cancer.
As you think about your options, here are 3 important steps you can take:
- Look for "red flags" that suggest fraud. Does the method promise to cure all or most cancers? Are you told not to have regular medical treatments? Is the treatment a "secret" that requires you to visit certain providers or travel to another country?
- Talk to your doctor or nurse about any method you are thinking of using.
- Contact us at 1-800-227-2345 to learn more about complementary and alternative methods in general and to find out about the specific methods you are looking at.
The choice is yours
Decisions about how to treat or manage your cancer are always yours to make. If you want to use a non-standard treatment, learn all you can about the method and talk to your doctor about it. With good information and the support of your health care team, you may be able to safely use the methods that can help you while avoiding those that could be harmful.
What are some questions I can ask my doctor?
As you cope with cancer and cancer treatment, we encourage you to have honest, open talks with your doctor. Feel free to ask any question that's on your mind, no matter how small it might seem. Here are some questions you might want to ask. Be sure to add your own questions as you think of them. Nurses, social workers, and other members of the treatment team may also be able to answer many of your questions.
- Would you please write down the exact type of cancer I have?
- How does this affect my treatment options and outlook?
- May I have a copy of my pathology report?
- Has the cancer spread to my lymph nodes or other organs?
- What is the stage of the cancer? What does that mean in my case?
- Are there other tests that need to be done before we can decide on treatment?
- What treatment choices do I have? What do you recommend? Why?
- Should I think about genetic testing?
- Should I look into taking part in a clinical trial?
- What are the risks or side effects of different treatments?
- What can I do to get ready for treatment?
- How well can I expect breast reconstruction surgery to work if I need or want it?
- What are the pros and cons of having it done right away or waiting until later?
- What will my breasts look and feel like after treatment?
- Will I have normal feeling in my breasts after treatment?
- Will I lose my hair? If so, what can I do about it?
- What are the chances of the cancer coming back with the treatment you suggest? What would we do if that happens?
- Should I follow a special diet or make other lifestyle changes?
- Will I go through menopause as a result of treatment?
- Will I be able to have children after treatment?
- What are my chances of survival, based on my cancer as you see it?
- What type of follow-up will I need after treatment?
Be sure to write down any questions you have that are not on this list. For instance, you might want to ask about recovery times so that you can plan your work schedule. Or you may want to ask about second opinions. Taking another person and/or a tape recorder with you to doctor visits can be helpful. Keeping copies of your medical records, pathology reports, and radiology reports may be useful in case you wish to get a second opinion later.
Add your own questions below:
Completing treatment can be both stressful and exciting. You will be relieved to finish treatment, yet it is hard not to worry about cancer coming back. (When cancer returns, it is called recurrence.) This is a very common concern among those who have had cancer.
It may take a while before your confidence in your own recovery begins to feel real and your fears are somewhat relieved. For more information on this please refer to our document, Living With Uncertainty: The Fear of Cancer Recurrence.
It is also important to keep medical insurance. Even though no one wants to think of their cancer coming back, it is always a possibility. Should your cancer come back our document, When Your Cancer Comes Back: Cancer Recurrence gives you information on how to manage and cope with this phase of your treatment.
After your treatment is over, it is very important to keep all follow-up appointments. During these visits, your doctors will ask about symptoms and may do physical exams, and order lab tests or imaging tests. Follow-up is needed to check for cancer recurrence or spread, as well as possible side effects of certain treatments. This is the time for you to ask your health care team any questions you need answered and to discuss any concerns you might have.
Almost any cancer treatment can have side effects. Some may last for a few weeks to several months, but others can be permanent. Don't hesitate to tell your cancer care team about any symptoms or side effects that bother you so they can help you manage them.
At first, these visits are scheduled every 4 to 6 months. The longer you are free of cancer, the less often you will need visits. After 5 years, visits are usually once a year. If you had breast-conserving surgery, you will need to keep on having mammograms every year.
If you are taking tamoxifen, you should have a pelvic exam every year. Be sure to tell your doctor right away if you have abnormal vaginal bleeding because the drug can increase the risk of uterine cancer. If you are taking an aromatase inhibitor, your doctor might want to have your bone density checked.
If anything suggests that the cancer might have come back, the doctor will want to do more tests. If cancer does come back, the treatment will depend on the place of the cancer and what treatments you've had before. Treatment could involve surgery, radiation, hormone therapy, or chemo.
Lymphedema is a swelling of the arm and/or caused by fluid build-up. It can occur any time after treatment for breast cancer-- right after surgery, months, or even years later. There is no way to know who will and will not develop lymphedema.
With care, lymphedema can often be avoided or kept under control. Injury or infection of the arm on the affected side can cause lymphedema or make it worse. Tell your doctor right away about any swelling, tightness, or injury to the hand or arm. There are ways to help prevent problems. For example, most doctors suggest that women do not have blood drawn from or blood pressures taken on the arm on the side of the lymph node surgery or radiation. To learn more, see our document, Lymphedema: What Every Woman With Breast Cancer Should Know.
Women who have had treatment for breast cancer should know that they can have a normal quality of life after treatment is over. Many studies have proven this. But women who have had chemo may notice a slight decrease in certain areas of function.
Some studies suggest that younger women tend to have more problems with the stresses of breast cancer and its treatment. Some feel isolated. Also, chemo may cause early menopause which needs to be managed. There may be sexual problems, too. These women might benefit from counseling and support groups directed to younger breast cancer survivors.
You may have been going through so much during treatment that you could not focus on anything else. Once your treatment ends, you may find yourself overwhelmed by emotions. This happens to a lot of women. This is an ideal time to seek out support. You need people you can turn to for strength and comfort. Support can come in many forms: family, friends, cancer support groups, church or spiritual groups, online support groups, or individual counselors. The cancer journey can feel very lonely, but you don't have to go it alone. If you aren't sure who can help, call us and we can put you in touch with a group or other resource.
A woman's choice of treatment is likely influenced by her age, the image she has of herself and her body, and her hopes and fears. For example, some women may choose breast-conserving surgery with radiation over a mastectomy for body image reasons. On the other hand, some women choose mastectomy regardless of the effect on their body image. They may be more concerned about the effects of radiation than how the breast will look after treatment.
Many women with breast cancer also find themselves dealing with the fact that treatment changed the way they look. Some changes may be short term, such as hair loss. But even short-term changes can have a major effect on how a woman feels about herself. A number of options are available to help women cope with hair loss, including wigs, hats, scarves, and more. For a list of some companies that sell wigs and other hair accessories, call the American Cancer Society 1-800-227-2345 and ask for the document, Breast Prostheses and Hair Loss Accessories List. On the other hand, some women may choose to show off their baldness as a way to identify themselves as breast cancer survivors.
Whatever the changes you may face, it's important to know that there is advice and support out there to help you cope with these changes. Talking with your doctor or nurse is often a good starting point. There are also many support groups, such as our Reach to Recovery program. Call us to learn more about programs in your area.
Breast forms and bras vs. breast reconstruction
Some women who have had a mastectomy might choose breast forms instead of reconstruction. Your doctor will tell you when you are ready to be fitted for a form. Prices vary quite a bit. Take time to shop for one that looks good and fits well.
The right bra for you may very well be the one you have always worn. You can often have your usual bra adapted for a breast form. Be sure to check your insurance to see what is covered and how to file a claim. Also, ask your doctor to write prescriptions for your form and any special bras. When buying the forms or bras, have the bills marked "surgical."
Be aware that if you submit an insurance claim for a breast form or a bra, the company might not also cover reconstruction if you decide you want this procedure in the future. Get all the facts before turning in any claims.
Be sure to call your local ACS Reach to Recovery volunteer about any questions you have. She will give you suggestions, more reading material, and advice. Remember that she's been there and may understand better than most people.
Concerns about sexuality are often very worrisome to a woman with breast cancer. Aside from body image, some treatments for breast cancer, such as chemo, can change a woman's hormone levels and may reduce her sexual interest or response. It can be especially hard if a woman in her 20s or 30s finds she has breast cancer. Choosing a partner and having children are often very important during this period.
A woman's partner can also find the diagnosis distressing. Partners are often worried about how to express their love physically and emotionally after treatment, especially after surgery.
Treatment for breast cancer can affect the pleasure from touching the breast. In a reconstructed breast, the feeling of pleasure from touching the nipple is largely lost because a rebuilt nipple has much less feeling than a natural one. The skin of the breast itself may be less sensitive, too. But some feeling may return over time.
Some women still enjoy being touched around the area of the surgery; others dislike being touched there and may no longer even enjoy having the remaining breast touched. A few women have chronic pain in their chests after radical mastectomy. Supporting these areas with pillows and avoiding positions where your weight rests on your chest or arms during sex may help.
Breast surgery or radiation to the breasts does not physically decrease a woman's sexual desire. Nor does it decrease her ability to have normal intercourse or to reach orgasm. Some good news from recent research is that most women with early stage breast cancer have adjusted well within a year. They report a quality of life much like that of women who never had cancer.
Please remember that every woman reacts in her own way. Your feelings are not right or wrong, they are simply yours. For more information, see Sexuality for the Woman With Cancer.
In the past, many doctors advised breast cancer survivors not to become pregnant for at least 2 years after treatment. Although only a few studies have been done, nearly all have found that pregnancy does not increase the risk of the cancer coming back after successful treatment. If you are thinking about getting pregnant, be sure to talk to your doctor first. Sometimes counseling can help you sort out the complex issues about motherhood and breast cancer survivorship.
In the past doctors have offered PHT (also called hormone replacement therapy or HRT) to women after breast cancer treatment to help with severe symptoms of menopause. But a recent study has shown that women taking PHT after treatment for breast cancer are much more likely to have the cancer come back or to develop a new breast cancer. For this reason, most doctors now feel that it is unwise not a good idea for women who have been treated for breast cancer to use PHT. Women may want to talk with their doctors about other ways to handle symptoms of menopause.
At some point after your cancer diagnosis and treatment, you may find yourself in the office of a new doctor. It is important that you be able to give your new doctor the exact details of your diagnosis and treatment. Make sure you have the following information handy and always keep copies of all your medical records for yourself:
- A copy of your pathology report from any biopsy or surgery
- If you had surgery, a copy of your operative report
- If you were hospitalized, a copy of the discharge summary that every doctor prepares when patients are sent home from the hospital
- If you had radiation therapy, a summary of the type and dose of radiation and when and where it was given
• If you had systemic therapy (hormone therapy, chemo, or targeted therapies), a list of your drugs, drug doses, and when you took them
Lifestyle changes to consider during and after treatment
Having cancer and dealing with treatment can be time-consuming and emotionally draining, but it can also be a time to look at your life in new ways. Maybe you are thinking about how to improve your health over the long term.
Make healthier choices
Think about your life before you learned you had cancer. Were there things you did that might have made you less healthy? Maybe you drank too much alcohol, or ate more than you needed, or smoked, or didn't exercise very often.
Now is not the time to feel guilty or to blame yourself. However, you can start making changes today that can have positive effects for the rest of your life. Not only will you feel better but you will also be healthier.
You can start by working on those things that you feel most concerned about. Get help with those that are harder for you. For instance, if you are thinking about quitting smoking and need help, call the American Cancer Society at 1-800-227-2345.
Diet and nutrition
Eating right can be a challenge for anyone, but it can get even tougher during and after cancer treatment. If you are still in treatment and are having eating problems related to your treatment, please ask for a copy of Nutrition for the Person with Cancer.
One of the best things you can do after treatment is to put healthy eating habits into place. You will be surprised at the long-term benefits of some simple changes, like increasing the variety of healthy foods you eat. Try to eat 5 or more servings of vegetables and fruits each day. Choose whole grain foods instead of white flour and sugars. Try to limit meats that are high in fat. Cut back on processed meats like hot dogs, bologna, and bacon. If you drink alcohol, limit yourself to 1 or 2 drinks a day at the most. And don't forget to get some type of regular exercise. The combination of a good diet and regular exercise will help you maintain a healthy weight and keep you feeling more energetic.
For a woman with breast cancer, getting to and staying at the right weight is one of the most important things she can do. Some studies have found that women who are very overweight when their cancer is found are more likely to have their cancer come back. And they are also more likely to die of the cancer. Studies have also found that gaining a lot of weight after cancer also had the same effect. But not all studies showed this result.
Rest, fatigue, work, and exercise
Fatigue is a very common symptom in people being treated for cancer. This is often not an ordinary type of tiredness but a “bone-weary” exhaustion that doesn't get better with rest. For some, this fatigue lasts a long time after treatment, and can discourage them from physical activity. However, exercise can actually help you reduce fatigue. Also, recent studies suggest that women who have had breast cancer and who are active have lower rates of the cancer coming back and lower death rates than those who are not active.
If you are ill and need to be on bed rest during treatment, it is normal to expect your fitness, endurance, and muscle strength to decline some. Physical therapy can help you maintain strength and range of motion in your muscles, which can help fight fatigue and the sense of depression that sometimes comes with feeling so tired.
Any program of physical activity should fit your own situation. Talk with your health care team before starting, and get their opinion about your exercise plans. Then, try to get an exercise buddy so that you're not doing it alone.
If you are very tired, though, you will need to balance activity with rest. It is okay to rest when you need to. For more information about fatigue, please see our publications, Fatigue in People with Cancer and Anemia in People With Cancer.
Exercise can improve your physical and emotional health.
- It improves your cardiovascular (heart and circulation) fitness.
- It makes your muscles stronger.
- It reduces fatigue.
- It lowers anxiety and depression.
- It makes you feel generally happier.
- It helps you feel better about yourself.
And long term, we know that exercise plays a role in preventing some cancers. The American Cancer Society recommends that for breast cancer prevention, women take part in at least 1 moderate to vigorous physical activity for 45 to 60 minutes on 5 days or more of the week. Moderate activities are those that take about as much effort as a brisk walk. Vigorous activities use larger muscle groups, make you sweat, and make you notice an increase in your heart rate and breathing.
Research into the causes, prevention, and treatment of breast cancer is going on in many medical centers throughout the world.
Causes of breast cancer
Studies continue to find lifestyle factors and habits that alter breast cancer risk. Some studies are looking at the effect of exercise, weight gain or loss, and diet on breast cancer risk. We are also learning more about how genes influence breast cancer. This should happen more quickly now that the human genome has been mapped out.
A large, long-term study is now going on to help find the causes of breast cancer. It is known as the Sister Study and it will follow 50,000 women whose sisters (not they themselves) have had breast cancer. Over 10 years, information will be gathered on many factors that might cause breast cancer. An offshoot of the Sister Study, the Two Sister Study, is designed to look at possible causes of early onset breast cancer. If you want to find out more about these studies, you can call 1-877-4-SISTER (1-877-474-7837) or visit the Web site at www.sisterstudy.org.
Studies have suggested that drugs like tamoxifen and raloxifene may lower breast cancer risk in women with certain breast cancer risk factors. But so far, many women don't want to take these drugs because they are concerned about possible side effects.
Newer studies are looking at whether aromatase inhibitors can reduce the risk of developing breast cancer in post-menopausal women. These drugs are already being used to help prevent breast cancer recurrences, but none of them are approved for reducing breast cancer risk at this time.
Fenretinide, a drug related to vitamin A, is also being studied as a way to reduce the risk of breast cancer. In a small study, this drug reduced breast cancer risk as much as tamoxifen. Other drugs are also being studied to reduce the risk of breast cancer. For more information, see our document, Medicines to Reduce Breast Cancer Risk.
New lab tests
One of the problems with early stage breast cancer is that doctors cannot always tell which women have a higher risk of cancer coming back after treatment. That is why almost every woman gets some sort of adjuvant treatment after surgery. To try to better decide out who will need adjuvant therapy, researchers have looked at many aspects of breast cancers.
In recent years, scientists have been able to link certain patterns of genes with more aggressive cancers -- those that tend to come back and spread to distant sites. Some lab tests based on these findings are already available, but doctors are still trying to figure out the best way to use them. Other tests are being developed, too.
Classifying breast cancer
Research on patterns of genes has also suggested some new ways of grouping breast cancers. The current types of breast cancer are based largely on how tumors look under a microscope. A newer system, based on molecular features, may be better able to predict outlook and response to some breast cancer treatments.
Tumor cells in the blood
Researchers have found that in many women with breast cancer, cells may break away from the tumor and enter the blood. These tumor cells can be found with sensitive lab tests. These tests are not yet ready for general use, but in the future they may be helpful in learning whether treatment like chemo is working-- or for finding cancer that has come back after treatment.
Newer imaging tests
Some newer imaging methods are being studied to see how they can be used to look at areas of change in the breast that might be cancer. You can find out more about these methods in our document, Mammograms and Other Breast Imaging Procedures.
Newer types of mastectomy
Newer types of mastectomy that try to give better looking results after surgery are now being studied.
Nipple-sparing mastectomy: This is even newer approach is something like the skin-sparing mastectomy in that the nipple and areola are cut away when the breast tissue is removed. But here the nipple and darker skin around it (areola) are scraped clean of breast tissue and looked at by a pathologist. As long as there are no breast cancer cells found close to the nipple and areola, they are then reattached.
Further studies of these methods are needed to make sure they don't result in a higher risk of cancer starting or coming back.
Sometimes after breast surgery the breasts can be different sizes or shapes. Some doctors are trying to address this problem by combining cancer surgery and plastic surgery. This is called oncoplastic surgery. It involves reshaping the breast at the time of the breast-conserving surgery, and may mean operating on the other breast as well to make them look more alike. This approach is still fairly new, and not all doctors are comfortable with it. The main concern is whether or not oncoplastic surgery might be more likely to leave tumor tissue behind.
Breast reconstruction surgery
Advances in re-attaching blood vessels (microvascular surgery) have led to improvements in breast reconstruction.
Research has shown that women who have breast implants used for breast reconstruction do not have any greater risk for immune system diseases than women who have not had this surgery. Also, breast implants have not been shown to increase the risk of the breast cancer coming back or of a new cancer forming. To learn more about the types of reconstructive surgery now available, see the American Cancer Society document, Breast Reconstruction After Mastectomy.
Doctors are comparing giving larger daily doses of radiation over fewer days to the standard radiation schedule. Studies have shown that giving radiation over 3 weeks seems to work about as well as the standard 5-week course. Other studies are looking at giving even larger daily doses over an even shorter time, such as a week.
For women who need radiation after lumpectomy, a method called APBI (accelerated partial breast irradiation) may offer an easier way to get it (as opposed to the standard daily radiation treatments that take many weeks to complete). There are several types of APBI now being studied. Large studies are going on to find out if these techniques work as well as standard radiation in helping to prevent cancer from coming back.
New chemo drugs
Because advanced breast cancers are often hard to treat, researchers are looking for newer, better drugs. A drug has been developed that targets cancers caused by BRCA mutations. It is called olaparib and it worked in treating breast, ovarian, and prostate cancers that had spread and that weren't helped by other treatments. Further studies are being done to see if this drug can help patients without BRCA mutations.
Targeted therapies are a group of newer drugs that take advantage of gene changes in cells that cause cancer.
Two of these drugs, trastuzumab (Herceptin) and lapatinib (Tykerb), are being used to treat some breast cancers today. Newer studies are looking at using Tykerb instead of Herceptin for early-stage breast cancer. Other targeted therapies are also being tested.
Everolimus (Afinitor®) is a new type of targeted therapy drug that has been approved to treat kidney cancer. In one study, letrozole plus everolimus worked better than letrozole alone in shrinking breast tumors before surgery. More studies using this drug are planned.
In order for cancers to grow, blood vessels must be made to feed the cancer cells. Some studies have found that breast cancers with many new, small blood vessels are likely to spread more quickly. New drugs are being made that may be useful in stopping breast cancer growth by keeping new blood vessels from forming. Some of these drugs are now being tested in clinical trials.
Bisphosphonates are drugs that are used to help strengthen and reduce the risk of fractures in bones that have been weakened by metastatic breast cancer. More studies are needed to find out if bisphosphonates should become part of standard therapy for early breast cancer.
A recent study found that women with early stage breast cancer who had low levels of vitamin D were more likely to have their cancer come back in a distant part of the body and had a poorer outlook. More research is needed to confirm this finding, and it is not yet clear if taking vitamin D supplements would be helpful. Still, you may want to talk to your doctor about testing your vitamin D level to see if it is in the healthy range.
When cancer spreads to the bone, it causes increased levels of a substance called RANKL, which is important in how bone is maintained. Higher RANKL levels cause cells called osteoclasts to destroy bone. A newer drug called denosumab acts against RANKL and can help protect bones. In early studies it seems to help even after bisphosphonates stop working. More studies are going on.
From your American Cancer Society
The following information may also be helpful to you. These materials may be ordered from our toll-free number, 1-800-227-2345.
After Diagnosis: A Guide for Patients and Families (also available in Spanish)
Breast Cancer Dictionary (also available in Spanish)
Breast Cancer Early Detection (also available in Spanish)
Breast Cancer Prosthesis and Hair Loss Accessory List
Breast Reconstruction After Mastectomy (also available in Spanish)
Clinical Trials: What You Need to Know
DES Exposure: Questions and Answers
Exercises After Breast Surgery (also available in Spanish)
Fatigue in People with Cancer
Genetic Testing: What You Need to Know
Inflammatory Breast Cancer
Is Having an Abortion Linked to Breast Cancer?
Living With Uncertainty: The Fear of Cancer Recurrence
Lymphedema: What Every Woman With Breast Cancer Should Know
Mammograms and Other Breast Imaging Procedures
Medicines to Reduce Breast Cancer Risk
Non-cancerous Breast Conditions (also available in Spanish)
Pregnancy and Breast Cancer
Sexuality for the Woman With Cancer (also available in Spanish)
Talking with Your Doctor (also available in Spanish)
Understanding Chemotherapy: A Guide for Patients and Families (also available in Spanish)
Understanding Radiation Therapy: A Guide for Patients and Families (also available in Spanish)
When Your Cancer Comes Back: Cancer Recurrence
The following books are available from the American Cancer Society. Call our toll-free number to ask about costs or to place your order.
Breast Cancer Clear and Simple
Caregiving: A Step-By-Step Resource for Caring for the Person with Cancer at Home
Couples Confronting Cancer
Lymphedema: Understanding and Managing Lymphedema After Cancer Treatment
National organizations and Web sites*
Along with the American Cancer Society, other sources of information and support include:
National Breast Cancer Coalition
Toll-free number: 1-800-622-2838
Web site: www.stopbreastcancer.org
National Cancer Institute
Toll-free number: 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237)
Web site: www.cancer.gov
Susan G. Komen for the Cure
Toll-free number: 1-877-465-6636
Web site: www.komen.org
Breast Cancer Network of Strength
Toll-free number: 1-800-221-2141
Toll-free number in Spanish: 1-800-986-9505
Web site: www.networkofstrength.org
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
Toll-free number: 1-800-232-4636
Web site: www.cdc.gov
No matter who you are, we can help. Contact us anytime, day or night, for information and support. Call us at 1-800-227-2345 or visit www.cancer.org.
Last Medical Review: 09/29/2009
Last Revised: 07/01/2010