Breast Cancer: What You Need to Know

Paper dolls of women and a stethoscope next to a pink ribbon with a pink background

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, an annual campaign to increase awareness of the disease. In recognition of these efforts, Summit Medical Group wants to make sure that every woman has the tools and education she needs to understand the disease and how to fight it. Throughout the month, we will be offering information about breast cancer, providing links to online resources and discussing the ways Summit Medical Group screens, detects and treats breast cancer in our patients.

It is alarming to know that one in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime. While we can't prevent cancer, it is vital that we do everything we can to be proactive about our health. Some of the information we will be sharing can help reduce the risk for breast cancer, and provides answers to these common questions:

  • How do I choose healthy habits?
  • What are some characteristics and lifestyle choices that increase the risk of developing breast cancer?
  • What are the general guidelines for breast cancer early detection screenings?
  • How often should I get them?

We will also discuss breast issues that aren't breast cancer, so that there is a clear understanding of what to look for when considering the possibility of having breast cancer.

Except for skin cancer, breast cancer is the most common cancer in women in the United States. Deaths from breast cancer have declined over time, but still remain the second leading cause of cancer deaths amount women overall and the leading cause of cancer death among Hispanic women. Each year in the United States, about 250,000 cases of breast cancer are diagnosed in women and about 2,300 in men. About 42,000 women and 500 men in the U.S. die each year from breast cancer.

What is Breast Cancer?

Breast Cancer is a disease in which cells in the breast grow out of control. Breast cancer can begin in different parts of the breast. A breast is made up of three main parts: lobules, ducts, and connective tissue. The lobules are the glands that produce milk. The ducts are tubes that carry milk to the nipple. The connective tissue (which consists of fibrous and fatty tissue) surrounds and holds everything together. Most breast cancers begin in the ducts or lobules. It can spread outside the breast through blood vessels and lymph vessels. When breast cancer spreads to other parts of the body, it is said to have metastasized.

There are different kinds of breast cancer. The kind of breast cancer depends on which cells in the breast turn into cancer. While there are several kinds of breast cancers, the two most common kinds are:

  • Invasive ductal carcinoma - The cancer cells grow outside the ducts into other parts of the breast tissue. Invasive cancer cells can also spread, or metastasize, to other parts of the body.
  • Invasive lobular carcinoma - Cancer cells spread from the lobules to the breast tissues that are close by. These invasive cancer cells can also spread to other parts of the body.​

What are the most common symptoms?

It's important to remember that different people have different symptoms of breast cancer, while some people do not have any signs or symptoms at all. Some of the more common, universal warning signs of breast cancer include:

  • New lump in the breast or underarm (armpit)
  • Thickening or swelling of part of the breast
  • Irritation or dimpling of breast skin
  • Redness or flaky skin in the nipple area or the breast
  • Pulling in of the nipple or pain in the nipple area
  • Nipple discharge other than breast milk, including blood
  • Any change in the size or the shape of the breast
  • Pain in any area of the breast

Keep in mind: these symptoms can happen with other conditions that are not cancer. That's why you should be sure to see your doctor right away if you have any signs or symptoms that worry you.