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Answers To The Most-Commonly Asked Breast Cancer Questions

Q. Who is at risk to develop breast cancer?

A. Every woman is at risk for breast cancer. Breast cancer is the most common cancer in America and one in nine women will develop breast cancer in her lifetime.

Q. But aren’t there women with special risk factors?

A. As you get older, your risk for breast cancer increases. Three-quarters of all breast cancers occur in women over 50. Risk is somewhat higher in women whose close female relatives - their mothers or sisters - have had the disease. Also, women who never have had children or had their first child after age 30 seem to be at somewhat higher risk for breast cancer.

Q. What can be done to protect against breast cancer?

A. The best protection against breast cancer is to detect it at its earliest stage and to treat it promptly.

Researchers are investigating the possible roles of heredity, environment, lifestyle, and diet. It’s still not clear what causes breast cancer or how to prevent it.

Q. What does the American Cancer society recommend for early detection of breast cancer?

A. The recommendation of the American Cancer Society and the nation’s leading health organizations is this three-step early detection program:

Have regular mammograms: screening mammograms should begin by age 40. Have one every year or two to age 49, and every year after age 50.

See your doctor for regular breast exams: at least every three years between the ages of 20 and 40 and every year over 40.

Practice monthly breast self-exam: ask your doctor, nurse, or mammography technician to teach you the proper method. The local office of the American Cancer Society, YWCA ENCOREPlus and the Spokane County Health District can give you a how-to-do diagram as well.

These guidelines for early detection of breast cancer are for women who have no symptoms. They are designed to find breast cancer at the earliest stages when there is the best opportunity to treat it successfully. If there are signs or symptoms, your doctor may recommend a different program.

Q. What are the signs and symptoms of breast cancer?

A. The most common sign is a lump or thickening that does not go away or seem to change. Most lumps in the breast are not cancerous - four out of five are from other causes. All lumps should be checked by a doctor.

Other signs to be aware of if they persist are swelling, puckering or dimpling, skin irritation, pain, or tenderness of the nipple.

Q. What is a mammogram?

A. A mammogram is an x-ray picture of the breast. Modern mammography equipment and techniques expose women to only minimal amounts of radiation. A trained radiologic technologist positions your breast between two plastic plates that compress it, spreading it out so that the x-ray can produce as precise an image as possible. Two x-rays are taken of each breast during mammography - one from above and one from side-to-side. A specially trained physician - a radiologist - reads the mammogram to see if any suspicious areas exist.

Q. How can you be sure to get a mammogram that is safe and of high quality?

A. If a mammography facility is accredited by the American College of Radiology, the mammography machines and their facility staff have met special quality standards and tests. Ask your American Cancer Society office, or call 1-800-ACS-2345 to find out where to get a quality mammogram.

Q. What if breast cancer is found?

A. Not all breast cancers or breast cancer patients are alike. Treatments for early breast cancer can include lumpectomy (limited surgery which removes the cancer but not the entire breast), followed by radiation therapy; or breast reconstruction after mastectomy (surgical removal of the breast). Additional treatments may include chemotherapy or hormone therapy.

A woman with breast cancer should fully review her treatment options with her doctor.

Q. What are the chances of survival from breast cancer?

A. Early detection of breast cancer gives a women her best chance for survival. The five-year survival rate is:

94% if the cancer has not spread

73% if it has spread to nearby organs

18% if it has spread throughout the body.

Although the number of women getting breast cancer is increasing, early detection and improved treatment have kept the death rates from this cancer fairly stable over the past 50 years, and only about one in 30 American women will die of breast cancer.