Breast Cancer Awareness Month: What is Breast Cancer?

Posted by Jason Wilson, RN, MBA

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Oct 9, 2017 11:30:00 AM

For Breast Cancer Awareness Month, this post explores the topic of what is breast cancer and the risk factors.

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. In this post, we explore: What is breast cancer, and what are the symptoms and stages of breast cancer? Check the CareSync blog for more posts on breast cancer throughout the month.

Breast cancer gets a lot of attention in October and all year long, as it well should. According to the American Cancer Society, as of January 1, 2016, there were 3.5 million women in the United States living with a history of breast cancer, either as a survivor or as someone receiving treatments. By the end of 2017, it is estimated that 252,710 women will have a breast cancer diagnosis.

Yet despite all of the awareness surrounding breast cancer, how many people really know what breast cancer is? What is the difference between Stage I and Stage IV? How do you know if you might have breast cancer? Let's take a look:

What Is Breast Cancer?

What is breast cancer, and how can you work to protect yourself?

Breast cancer occurs when breast cells grow out of control, which can begin in the milk ducts, the milk-producing lobules, or the connective tissues. Sometimes this results in the tumors you're taught to feel for as lumps in the breast, but of course, not all breast cancer can be detected by feeling it for yourself. Furthermore, many breast lumps aren't cancerous.

There are actually a few different types of breast cancer. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, these are the two most common:

"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."

Like other cancers, the exact cause of breast cancer is unknown. There are a variety of risk factors that increase your chances of developing the disease; however, some women with no risk factors still get breast cancer, while others with multiple risk factors live their entire lives without it.

Symptoms of Breast Cancer

What is breast cancer? Learn the signs and symptoms for breast cancer prevention.

The Mayo Clinic and the CDC list several symptoms of breast cancer while reminding you that it is possible to have cancer without any symptoms at all, and not everyone will experience the same symptoms. If you notice any lumps or changes in your breasts, or if you have any other concerns, you should see your doctor as soon as possible.

Potential breast cancer symptoms include:

  • A lump in the breast or under your arm
  • Changes to the nipple
  • Irritation, redness, or flaking of the skin on the breast and around the nipple
  • Changes in breast size or shape
  • Nipple discharge
  • Breast pain
  • A sudden inversion of the nipple

The Stages of Breast Cancer

Your doctor can answer the question what is breast cancer and what are the stages of cancer for you.

If you are diagnosed with breast cancer, your doctor will determine which stage the cancer is in; in other words, the stage indicates how far advanced the cancer is. The stage will help determine your options for treatment.

The National Cancer Institute outlines these stages of breast cancer:

  • Stage 0: Abnormal cells are present, but they are noninvasive.
  • Stage I: Further divided into IA and IB, stage I tumors are small and have not spread beyond the breast or the lymph nodes.
  • Stage II: In stage IIA, there is a small or no tumor in the breast plus cancer in the lymph nodes, or there is a slightly larger tumor in the breast with no cancer in the lymph nodes. Stage IIB indicates a larger tumor with cancer in the lymph nodes, or a tumor larger than five centimeters with no cancer present in the lymph nodes.
  • Stage IIIA: A tumor larger than five centimeters with cancer in the lymph nodes.
  • Stage IIIB: At this stage, the tumor can be of any size with the cancer having spread to the skin or the chest wall and possibly additional lymph nodes. Swelling or an ulcer are present.
  • Stage IIIC: The breast tumor itself can be of any size or even nonexistent, but the cancer is present in even more lymph nodes: 10 or more axillary nodes as well as nodes around the collarbone and breastbone. It may also have spread to the skin and chest wall.
  • Stage IV: At this point, "the cancer has spread to other parts of the body, such as the brain, lung, liver, or bone."

Protecting Yourself from Breast Cancer

What is breast cancer prevention? Speak to your doctor to determine your risk for breast cancer.

It's important to build a strong relationship with your doctor. Healthy lifestyle habits can help you reduce your risk of breast cancer, but it's still important to discuss your medical and family history with your doctor and follow his or her recommendations regarding breast cancer screening. When the cancer is found in the earliest stages, treatment is very effective and the survival rate is high (recent data shows breast cancer death rates are down 39% since 1989).

Be proactive about your health by staying informed about breast cancer and its risk factors and staying alert and responding to any changes you might notice in your breasts.

Learn more about care coordination and how it can add value to the healthcare experiences of you and your loved ones.

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