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Breast Cancer - Topic Overview

This topic is for women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer for the first time. If you are looking for information on breast cancer that has spread or come back after treatment, see the topic Breast Cancer, Metastatic or Recurrent.

For male breast cancer, see the topic Breast Cancer in Men.

Breast cancer camera.gif occurs when abnormal cells grow out of control in one or both breasts. They can invade nearby tissues and form a mass, called a malignant tumor. The cancer cells can spread (metastasize) to the lymph nodes and other parts of the body.

Breast cancer that begins in the ducts of the breast camera.gif is called ductal carcinoma. It is the most common type of breast cancer. This topic focuses on breast cancer that begins in the ducts.

Breast cancer is many women's worst fear. But experts have made great progress in treating cancer. If it is found early, breast cancer can often be successfully treated, and it is not always necessary to remove the breast.

Doctors don't know exactly what causes breast cancer. But some things are known to increase the chance that you will get it. These are called risk factors. Risk factors that you cannot change include getting older and having changes to certain genes. Risk factors you can change include using certain types of hormone therapy after menopause, being overweight, and not getting enough physical activity.1

But many women who have risk factors don't get breast cancer. And many women who get breast cancer don't have any known risk factors other than being female and getting older.

Breast cancer can cause:

  • A change in the way the breast feels. The most common symptom is a painless lump or thickening in the breast or underarm.
  • A change in the way the breast looks. The skin on the breast may dimple or look like an orange peel. There may be a change in the size or shape of the breast.
  • A change in the nipple. It may turn in. The skin around it may look scaly.
  • A fluid that comes out of the nipple.

See your doctor right away if you notice any of these changes.

During a regular physical exam, your doctor can check your breasts to look for lumps or changes. Depending on your age and risk factors, the doctor may advise you to have a mammogram, which is an X-ray of the breast. A mammogram can often find a lump that is too small to be felt. Sometimes a woman finds a lump during a breast self-exam.

If you or your doctor finds a lump or another change, the doctor will want to take a sample of the cells in your breast (biopsy). The results of the biopsy help your doctor know if you have cancer and what type of cancer it is.

You may have other tests to find out the stage of the cancer. The stage is a way for doctors to describe how far the cancer has spread. Your treatment choices will be based partly on the type and stage of cancer.

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WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: June 18, 2012
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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