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Breast Cancer Overview

The Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania

About Breast Cancer: An Overview

Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer among American women. Breast cancer is a group of related diseases in which cells within the breast become abnormal and divide without control or order. The most common types of breast cancer occur in the lining of the ducts or in the lobules of the breast.

One in nine women will develop breast cancer in her lifetime. Approximately 160,000 new cases of breast cancer are diagnosed each year. Most breast cancer occurs in women over the age of 50 years. With earlier detection methods, breast cancer is now found at an early stage of development in the majority of women.

All women are at risk for breast cancer. But women with a strong family history of breast cancer, a personal history of breast cancer, early first menstruation, late menopause, or first full-term pregnancy after age 30 are at a higher risk. The risk of developing breast cancer also increases with age. Long-term estrogen therapy, a high-fat diet and alcohol use have been reported as possible risk factors, but their relationship to breast cancer is uncertain. Many women who get breast cancer have none of the known risk factors. In most cases, the disease is probably the result of several factors -- known or unknown -- acting together.

The key to cure is early detection and prompt treatment. Physical exams by health care professionals, mammograms and monthly breast self-exams are the important keys to early detection. Women should report any physical changes in their breasts to a doctor. Warning signs include a lump or thickening of the breast or armpit; a change in the size or shape of the breast; a discharge from the nipple; or a change in the color or feel of the skin of the breast or nipple.

To find out the causes of these symptoms, a doctor performs a thorough physical exam. He or she may order blood tests and X-rays. The doctor also may need to remove a piece of breast tissue and look at it under the microscope to see if there are cancer cells present.

There are many treatments for breast cancer. Treatment depends on the size and location of the tumor in the breast and extent of the disease in the armpit and the rest of the body. To develop a treatment plan to fit each patient's needs, the doctor also considers the woman's age and general health, as well as her feelings about the treatment options. Treatments used either alone or in combination include: surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy and hormonal therapy. Clinical trials that test new treatments also may be offered.