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Breast Cancer 101 - Part 1

Posted Oct 12 2010 12:00am
October is Breast Cancer Awareness month, and this would be the right time to share information about "What you need to know about breast cancer"


Breast cancer today is not what it was 20 years ago. Survival rates are climbing, thanks to greater awareness, more early detection, and advances in treatment. For roughly 200,000 Americans who are diagnosed with breast cancer each year, there are plenty of reasons to be hopeful.

Breast Cancer Symptoms

There are often no symptoms of breast cancer, but sometimes women may discover a breast problem on their own. Signs and symptoms to be aware of may include
    * A painless lump in the breast.
    * Changes in breast size or shape.
    * Swelling in the armpit.
    * Nipple changes or discharge.

Breast pain can also be a symptom of cancer, but this is not common.

Signs of Inflammatory Breast Cancer

Inflammatory breast cancer is a rare, fast-growing type of cancer that often causes no distinct lump. Instead, breast skin may become thick, red, and may look pitted -- like an orange peel. The area may also feel warm or tender and have small bumps that look like a rash.

Diagnosis

Breast Cancer and Mammograms

The earlier breast cancer is found, the easier it is to treat. And mammograms, X-rays of the breast, can detect tumors before they are large enough to feel. The American Cancer Society recommends yearly mammograms beginning at age 40 for women at average risk. While the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends a screening mammogram every two years from age 50 to 74. It also notes that before age 50, each woman should check with a doctor to find out what screening schedule is right for her, considering the potential benefits and harms from screening.

Breast Ultrasound and MRI

Besides a mammogram,  your doctor may order additional imaging with breast ultrasound. An ultrasound can help determine the presence of cysts, fluid-filled sacs that are not cancer. An MRI may be recommended along with a mammogram for routine screening in certain women who have a higher risk of breast cancer.

Breast Self-Exams

It was once widely recommended that women check their own breasts once a month. But studies suggest these breast self-exams play a very small role in finding cancer. The current thinking is that it’s more important to know your breasts and be aware of any changes, rather than checking them on a regular schedule. If you want to do breast self-exams, be sure to go over the technique with your doctor.

What If You Find a Lump?

First, don’t panic. Eighty percent of breast lumps are not cancerous. Lumps often turn out to be harmless cysts or tissue changes related to your menstrual cycle. But you should let your doctor know right away if you find anything unusual in your breast. If it is cancer, the earlier it’s found the better. And if it’s not, testing can give you peace of mind.

Breast Biopsy

The only sure way to determine whether a lump is cancer is to do a biopsy. This involves taking a tissue sample for further examination in the lab, sometimes through a small needle. Sometimes surgery is done to take part of or the entire lump for testing. The results will show whether the lump is cancer, and if so, what type.

There are several forms of breast cancer, and treatments are carefully matched to the type of cancer.


Continued in Part 2
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