Answers FAQ

Breast Cancer FAQs

Reviewed by Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

Take the Breast Cancer Quiz First! Before reading this FAQ, challenge yourself and
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Q:A lump in the breast is almost always cancer. True or false?

A:False.

The opposite is true: most breast changes and even most breast lumps are not cancer. Non-cancerous changes in the breasts are common. The main types of benign breast conditions involve fibrosis (scarring) and cysts. Benign tumors called fibroadenomas are also common. It's important to see a health care provider as soon as possible if you feel an abnormality in your breasts.

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Q:How often do doctors recommend breast self-exams?

A:Formerly, it was recommended that women perform breast self-examination (BSE) once per month.

Currently, it is believed that it is more important for a woman to know the normal feel and appearance of her breasts and be aware of any changes rather than following a prescribed schedule. BSE is still an option for women who choose to perform this step as part of their breast awareness.

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Q:Risk for breast cancer can be inherited. True or false?

A:True.

A family history of breast cancer is a risk factor for developing the disease, and about 10% of women with breast cancer have inherited a mutation in one of the genes that predisposes to breast and other cancers. Breast cancer that develops due to inherited gene mutations has a tendency to occur earlier in life and occur in multiple relatives. These genes are also associated with an increase in the risk of developing ovarian cancer.

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Q:The term "mastalgia" refers to normal breast tissue. True or false?

A:False.

Mastalgia refers to pain in the breast and does not refer to a part of the breast itself.

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Q:Breast cancer starts because abnormal cells grow out of control. True or false?

A:True.

All cancers are characterized by uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells. Normal cells have a fixed life span but cancer cells have overcome these growth restrictions and continue to grow past the point at which normal cells would stop growth. Cancer cells also have the ability to invade (spread and grow into) other tissues in the body, a capability normal cells do not have.

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Q:What is the most common form of breast cancer?

A:Infiltrating or invasive ductal carcinoma (IDC) is more common than other types of breast cancer.

This type of cancer arises in the cells that line the milk ducts of the breast. About 80% of breast cancers are invasive ductal carcinomas.

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Q:What is the medical term for the spread of cancer?

A:Metastasis

Metastasis refers to the process in which cancer cells spread from the place they started (the primary site) to other parts of the body through the blood or lymphatic systems. The bone, liver, and lung are common sites for cancer to metastasize. Cancers are named according to their primary site (where they began) instead of the location of the metastasis. For example, breast cancer that has spread to the liver is metastatic breast cancer, not liver cancer.

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Q:Benign tumors in the breast are capable of metastasis. True or false?

A:False.

Benign tumors are not considered to be a form of cancer and therefore do not metastasize. They have not acquired the capability of uncontrolled growth like malignant tumors, and they cannot grow into (invade) other tissues. Benign tumors typically do not recur after they have been surgically removed.

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Q:What are some breast cancer risk factors?

A:Certain factors increase the risk of developing breast cancer. Risk factors can be within a person's control, such as diet and alcohol consumption. Other risk factors include race, family history, and age, and are beyond a person's control. Alcohol use, having children later in life (after 30), not having children, and overweight/obesity are all factors that can raise the risk of getting breast cancer.

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Q:In the U.S., breast cancer is the main cause of cancer deaths in women. True or false?

A:False.

Breast cancer is the second most common cause of cancer deaths in women, after lung cancer, even though many more women are affected. Effective screening and improved treatments mean many women can be cured of the disease, especially when it is discovered at an early stage.

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Q:California has the highest concentration of breast cancer in the U.S. True or false?

A:False.

According to National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) State Cancer Profiles, the District of Columbia (Washington, DC) has the highest incidence rate of breast cancer in the country.

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Q:Which state has the lowest prevalence of breast cancer throughout the U.S.?

A:Arkansas has the lowest incidence rate of breast cancer in the U.S., according to NIH and CDC data.

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Q:Breast pain is a common symptom of breast cancer. True or false?

A:False.

Breast pain is not a common symptom of breast cancer. Sometimes, breast cancers are found by screening when they are very small and do not produce symptoms. When they do cause symptoms, a mass or lump in the breast is the most common symptom. Other possible symptoms of breast cancer are skin irritation, redness, dimpling, and thickening; retraction of the nipple; nipple discharge, and swelling of all or part of the breast.

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Q:You or someone you know has found a lump in the breast. Now what?

A:Once a lump is found, the best thing to do is to make an appointment with a doctor.

As stated before, most breast lumps or masses are not cancer. Lumps in the breast may be related to the menstrual cycle in younger women and may even come and go depending on the cycle. But it is always best to have any lump checked out by a health care provider.

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