A Visual Guide to Breast Cancer

Your doctor may order an extra test that takes pictures of the inside of your body. A breast ultrasound can help find cysts, fluid-filled sacs that most often aren’t cancer. You might get an MRI along with a mammogram as part of your routine testing if you have a higher risk of breast cancer.

The most obvious risk factor for breast cancer is being a woman. Men get the disease, too, but it’s about 100 times more common in women. Other things that make it more likely include being over age 55 or having a close relative who had the disease. Still, up to 80% of women with breast cancer have no family history of the illness.

In about 20% of patients, breast cancer cells have too much of a protein called HER2/neu. It’s important to know whether a tumor is HER2-positive, because there are special treatments for this type of cancer.

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This treatment kills cancer cells with high-energy rays. It may be used after breast cancer surgery to wipe out any cancer cells that remain near the tumor site. Sometimes, it is given during breast conserving surgery to the area where the tumor was removed. It might be paired with chemotherapy to treat cancer that has spread to other body parts. Side effects include fatigue and swelling or a sunburn-like feeling where you were treated.

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This rare, fast-growing type rarely causes a distinct lump. Instead, breast skin can become thick, red, and look pitted, like an orange peel. The area might also feel warm or tender and have small bumps that look like a rash.

A HER2-positive cell is illustrated here. Growth signals that are not normal are shown in green.

A Visual Guide to Breast Cancer

UVA Radiology and Medical Imaging | Diagnosing Breast Cancer

Some women have a high risk of breast cancer because they got changes, or mutations, in certain genes at birth. The genes most often involved in breast cancer are known as BRCA1 and BRCA2. Women with mutations in these genes have a higher chance of getting breast cancer at some point in life than those who don’t. Other genes may be linked to breast cancer risk as well.

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Targeted Treatments

First, don’t panic. Eighty percent of breast lumps aren’t cancerous. They often turn out to be harmless cysts or tissue changes related to your menstrual cycle. But 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 isn’t, testing can give you peace of mind.

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National Cancer Institute: “Cancer Stat Facts: Female Breast Cancer,” “Immunotherapy to Treat Cancer.”

Breast Cancer Cell Photograph by Science Photo Library

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Breast Cancer Symptoms

Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation: “Breast Cancer Detection.”

For years, doctors told women to check their own breasts once a month. But studies suggest these exams play a very small role in finding cancer compared to other testing methods. 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 a self-exam, go over the technique with your doctor.

The odds of beating breast cancer are strongly tied to how early you find it. The American Cancer Society says 99% of women with stage I breast cancer live at least 5 years, and many women in this group remain cancer-free for good. The more advanced the cancer, the lower this figure becomes. By Stage IV, the 5-year survival rate drops to 29%. But these rates will rise as more effective treatments are found.

Breast Cancer Cell Photograph by Science Photo Library

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Breast cancer isn’t what it was 20 years ago. Survival rates are climbing, thanks to greater awareness, more early detection, and advances in treatment. For roughly 284,000 Americans who are diagnosed with breast cancer each year, there are plenty of reasons to be hopeful.

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Mayo Clinic: “Breast lump: Early evaluation is essential.”

Some types of breast cancer are fueled by the hormones estrogen or progesterone. Your doctor will test for hormone receptors — proteins that pick up signals from the hormone that tell cells to grow. A biopsy can show if a tumor has receptors for estrogen (it’s ER-positive) and progesterone (it’s PR-positive). About 2 out of 3 breast cancers are hormone sensitive. There are several medications that keep the hormones from causing further cancer growth.

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