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Fact Sheet On Breast Cancer

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Q: What is cancer?

A: Cancer is a disease that occurs when cells become abnormal and divide without control or order. Each organ in the body is made up of various kinds of cells that normally divide in an orderly way to produce more cells when they are needed. If cells divide when new cells are not needed, they form too much tissue, called a tumor that can be benign or malignant.

  • Benign tumors are not cancer. 80% of all breast tumors are benign. They can usually be removed, and, in most cases, do not come back. Most important, the cells in benign tumors do not invade other tissues and do not spread to other parts of the body. Benign breast tumors are not life-threatening.

  • Malignant tumors are cancer. The cancer cells grow and divide out of control, invading and damaging nearby tissues and organs. Cancer cells can also break away from the original tumor and enter the bloodstream or lymphatic system. This is how breast cancer spreads and forms secondary tumors in other parts of the body. This spread of cancer is called metastasis.

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Q: What is breast cancer?

A: Breast cancer forms in tissues of the breast, usually the ducts (tubes that carry milk to the nipple) and lobules (glands that make milk). It occurs in both men and women, although male breast cancer is rare.

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Q: How common is breast cancer in the United States?

A: Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women, other than skin cancer.

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Q: What are the breast cancer "risk factors"?

A: To predict when and in whom breast cancer will occur, scientists look for clues (risk factors) to signal which women may be more likely than others to develop the disease. Having one or two of these risk factors doesn't mean a woman will develop breast cancer. But knowing her personal risk factor profile and understanding what it means will help her and her doctor plan a course of action that may reduce her chances of developing the disease or, at least, to detect it in its earliest, most treatable stages.

The most common risk factors for breast cancer:

    • Sex. The highest risk factor is being female; the disease is about 100 times more common among women.
    • Age. The risk of breast cancer increases as a woman grows older. The risk is especially high for women age 60 and older. Breast cancer is uncommon in those younger than 35, although it does occur.
    • Personal History. Women who have had breast cancer and women with a history of breast disease (not cancer, but a condition that may predispose them to cancer) may develop it again.
    • Family History. Risk increases for a woman whose mother, sister, daughter, or two or more close relatives have had the disease. It is important to know their age at the time they were diagnosed.
    • Breast Cancer Genes. Some individuals, both women and men, may be born with an alteration in one of two genes that are important for regulating breast cell growth. Individuals who inherit a change in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene are at an "inherited" higher risk for breast cancer, and though rare, may pass this alteration on to their children. Scientists estimate that only about 5% - 10% of all breast cancers are due to genetic changes. One out of two women with these changes is likely to develop breast cancer. Women with a family history of breast cancer are encouraged to speak to a genetics counselor to determine the pros and cons of genetic testing.
    5 estrogen-related risk factors: Estrogen, a hormone that naturally occurs in men and women, appears to play a key role in breast cancer. Although estrogen doesn't cause breast cancer, it may stimulate the growth of cancer cells.
      • Having an early menarche (first period or menstrual bleeding). Women who begin menstruating before age 12 are at increased risk of developing breast cancer. The more menstrual cycles a woman has over her lifetime, the more likely she is to get the disease.
      • Having a first pregnancy after age 25 or 35. Although early pregnancies may help lower the chances of getting breast cancer, particularly before the age of 25, these same hormonal changes after age 35 may contribute to the incidence of breast cancer.
      • Having no children. Women who experience continuous menstrual cycles until menopause are at a higher than average risk.
      • Use of Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT). Based on the Women's Health Initiative Study (2002), women appear to have an increased risk of breast cancer while on HRT and a short time thereafter, compared to those who never used postmenopausal HRT. (Study of 16,000 healthy postmenopausal women aged 50-79 who were taking estrogen plus progestin as HRT, or a placebo an inactive pill).
      • Use of Oral Contraceptives (OCs) and Breast Cancer. Current or former use of OCs among women ages 35 to 64 did not significantly increase the risk of breast cancer. The findings were similar for Caucasian and African-American women. Data also show that former OC use does not increase the risk of breast cancer later in life.
      Other risk factors - and lifestyle choices to avoid them:  Common to all women are daily lifestyle decisions that may affect breast cancer risk. These choices involve factors such as poor diet, insufficient physical activity, alcohol use, and smoking. Besides possibly reducing breast cancer risk, lifestyle improvements represent smart steps for a healthier life, since they can help prevent heart disease, diabetes, and many other chronic, life-threatening conditions.
        • Decrease your daily fat intake - especially saturated or hydrogenated fats. Eat leaner meats and limit red meat. Reducing your fat intake helps prevent other health problems such as heart disease and stroke and may reduce your chance of developing breast and colon cancers.
        • Increase fiber in your diet. Fiber is found in whole grains, vegetables, and fruits. This type of diet is beneficial for your heart and can help prevent other cancers such as colon cancer.
        • Eat fresh fruits and vegetables. In addition to their fiber content, fruits and vegetables have antioxidant properties and micronutrients that may help prevent some cancers.
        • Limit alcohol. Evidence suggests that a small increase in risk exists for women who average two or more drinks per day (beer, wine, and distilled liquor).
        • Stay active. The U.S. Surgeon General has recently reported that you can help prevent many health problems by engaging in a moderate amount of physical activity (such as taking a brisk, 30-minute walk) on most days of the week. Strive to maintain the body weight recommended by a health professional, since excess fat may stimulate estrogen production.
        • Don't smoke. Although smoking doesn't cause breast cancer, it can increase the chance of blood clots, heart disease, and other cancers that may spread to the breast.

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        Q: What are the screening tools for breast cancer?

        A: Mammography screening remains the best available method to detect breast cancer early. Other screening tests, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) are available, but mammograms remain the best available way to detect breast cancer early. However, as no medical test is always 100 percent accurate, and mammography is no exception, research is being conducted to improve its accuracy and to create new technologies.

        Q: Will health insurance pay for screening mammograms?

        A: Regular screening mammograms are covered by Medicare and Medicaid and private health insurance plans. Check your own plan for individual details. Free or low-cost mammograms are available for women without health insurance in many locations. For a program near you, contact the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) at 800-CDC-INFO or (800-232-4636) or www.cdc.gov. Women seeking mammograms at a reduced rate are urged to make their appointment early in the year, as space may be limited.

        Treatments for Breast Cancer
        Q: What are the treatments for breast cancer?

        A: The basic treatment choices are surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, and hormonal therapy, which may or may not be included in the treatment regimen, depending on hormonal involvement in the growth of the tumor. Local treatments such as breast surgery and radiation therapy are focused on the breast itself to remove or destroy the cancer cells confined to the breast. Systemic treatment such as chemotherapy aims to destroy the cancer cells that may have spread throughout the body.

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        Excerpted from National Breast Cancer Awareness Month -


         The National Breast Cancer Awareness Month organization is a partnership of national public service organizations, professional medical associations and government agencies working together to promote breast cancer awareness,
        share information on the disease, and provide greater access to screening services.