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Breast Cancer

What’s the Problem?

After skin cancer, breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in women in the United States. Approximately 200,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer each year; 40,000 are estimated to die from their disease each year. Men can get breast cancer too; an estimated 1,500 men in this country are diagnosed each year.

Who’s at Risk?

Simply being a woman and getting older puts you at some risk for breast cancer. Your risk for breast cancer continues to increase over your lifetime. Several factors can further increase your risk for breast cancer, including:

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  • Personal history of breast cancer – if a woman has had cancer in one breast she is at increased risk for developing it in her other breast.
  • Family history – A woman is at increased risk if her mother, sister or daughter has had the disease.
  • Cellular irregularities – if a woman has had certain cellular changes like atypical hyperplasia or lobular carcinoma in situ, she is at increased risk.
  • Genetic changes – presence of the genes BRCA1 and BRCA2 indicate a woman’s predisposition to develop breast cancer.
  • Women who began menstruation at an early age (under 12 years old), had children later in life or not at all, experienced late menopause, or took hormone replacement therapy may be at increased risk.

Can It Be Prevented?

Women should talk to their health care providers about their chance of developing breast cancer. Women who have any risk factors for breast cancer should talk to their health care providers about when to begin and how often they should be screened for breast cancer. Mammography is the best way to detect breast cancer in its earliest, most treatable stage-an average of 1-3 years before a woman can feel the lump. Mammography also locates cancers too small to be felt during a clinical breast examination.

The Bottom Line

  • Breast cancer is the second most common cancer in women.
  • Every woman is at risk for breast cancer.
  • The incidence of breast cancer increases with age – beginning after age 40.
  • Breast cancer can be detected at an early treatable stage.
  • With early detection, breast cancer can be effectively treated with surgery that preserves the breast and follow-up radiation therapy. Chemotherapy and hormonal therapy are often given also. According to the American Cancer Society, based on data through 1997, 63% of breast cancers are discovered at an early stage – before the cancer has spread. The five-year survival rate following treatment for early-stage breast cancer is 96%.

Case Example

Kathy and Casey are 25-year-old twins. Their mother died at age 40 years from breast cancer. Kathy has read about the possible genetic link to breast cancer. She suggests to Casey that they talk to their doctor about their risk of getting breast cancer and when they should begin mammography. Casey is reluctant – she’s not sure she wants to know – but does know Kathy is right. They make an appointment to go to the doctor together. Their doctor advises them to begin getting mammograms earlier than the recommended base-line at 40 years of age. Both Kathy and Casey set up appointments for their first mammograms. Kathy’s results show a small tumor in her right breast. A biopsy and further tests show that it is malignant, but appears to be localized. Because Kathy was aware of her risk and took recommended actions, her cancer was detected in the early stage when it is most treatable.

Spanish Version of Breast Cancer [PDF – 219K]

  • Page last reviewed: September 15, 2017
  • Page last updated: September 15, 2017
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