Breast Cancer Symptoms, Treatment, Prevention And Prognosis

Breast cancer is one of the most common forms of cancer for women in the United States. It is a malignant tumor that forms in the cells of the breast, particularly in the milk ducts. If diagnosed early spreading can be prevented.

It is important to know breast cancer symptoms to catch the disease as early as possible. Breast cancer is more common among women, however men can be affected as well.


It is important to recognize the symptoms of breast cancer early, as treatment is more effective in the early stages. Perhaps the most widely known symptom is a lump or mass in the breast that was not previously present. A newly formed mass or lump is the symptom that prompts action however there are other symptoms that can indicate breast cancer, including:

  • Pain in the breasts or nipples – unrelated to menstruation
  • Redness on or around the nipples
  • Discharge from the nipples that is bloody or pink
  • Changes to skin on the breast, including dimpling, peeling, flaking or swelling
  • Inverted or sunken in nipple

Main Breast Cancer Symptoms Explained

As you can see from the above photo, breast cancer symptoms are far more severe than those of traditional menstrual symptoms.


Understanding breast cancer and its prevalence is key to identifying symptoms of breast cancer early on and beginning breast cancer treatment as early as possible. Some things you should know about breast cancer are:

  • More than 226,000 new cases are diagnosed each year according to the American Cancer Society.
  • More than 43,000 women will die from some form of breast cancer.
  • Each year almost 17,000 men are diagnosed with breast cancer.
  • Yearly mammograms can aid with early breast cancer detection.
  • There are several types of breast cancer with varying capabilities of spreading to other organs.
  • Monthly breast cancer self-exams can help with early detection and reduce the need for breast cancer surgery.


Despite many medical advancements in the field of breast cancer research very little is known about what actually causes breast cancer. There are, however, certain risk factors that may increase a person’s chances of a breast cancer diagnosis.

In the most basic sense breast cancer is caused by an abnormal growth within the breast cells, specifically within the cell ducts that produce milk. This is how one gets breast cancer, but aside from risk factors there is no direct link to any specific environmental or dietary factor that can cause breast cancer.

It is just as important to know if you fall into one of the at risk categories for breast cancer. Knowing the risk factors will allow you to be more diligent about breast cancer screenings and it will improve your chances for a positive breast cancer prognosis. Some risk factors for breast cancer are:

  • Family history of breast cancer. Those with breast cancer in their family are at greater risk for the disease than those with no family history of it.
  • Previous breast cancer diagnosis increases your risk for a future diagnosis.
  • Age. As you get older, particularly over 55 years of age, your risk of breast cancer increases.
  • Exposure to radiation to your chest in early years, increases your risk as you get older.
  • Obesity produces excess estrogen that has been known to enhance the development of certain types of breast cancer.
  • Hormone therapy for menopause requires an increase in estrogen intake, providing similar risks as obesity.
  • Starting your period prior to the age of 12 increases your risk
  • Starting menopause later than 55 years also increases the risk of breast cancer.
  • Using oral contraceptives slightly increases the risk of breast cancer among young women.

When to Seek Medical Care

The biggest help for successful breast cancer treatment is early detection, so if you notice a lump or mass in your breast, especially combined with other symptoms of breast cancer you should seek medical care immediately. Your physician can perform tests that will confirm a breast cancer diagnosis, which means treatment can begin as soon as possible.

Many women who fall into one of the breast cancer risk factor categories will need to undergo more frequent breast cancer screenings, however if you notice any of the symptoms and they are unrelated to your period or menopause symptoms you should make an appointment to see your doctor right away.

Self-examination of your breasts monthly can help make sure you detect the signs and symptoms of breast cancer early.


Several different tests exist to help your doctor confirm a breast cancer diagnosis. These tests range from non-invasive techniques like a simple breast exam to a biopsy of the breast tissue. Some methods may detect cancer before any symptoms present while others will help determine the severity of the cancer. These diagnostic methods include:

Examination of the Breast: During yearly gynecological exams or regular checkups, your doctor will examine your breasts for lumps, masses or other abnormal tissues. The physician will feel every portion of the breasts with his fingertips. You will also notice the doctor checks each breast from different positions to feel from all angles.

It is recommended that women perform self-exams in the same manner, preferably in the week before or after your period, not during.

This video will show you the correct method for performing a self-exam.

Mammography: A mammogram is an x-ray of the breast used to detect many different types of breast cancer. In fact mammograms are very useful in detecting breast cancer before any symptoms occur, which is why the American Cancer Society recommends that women over 40 years old get a mammogram every year. Women at a higher risk of breast cancer may need to have mammograms at least once every six months.

Ultrasound: If you have undergone other types of diagnostic treatments for breast cancer and abnormalities have been observed your doctor may recommend an ultrasound. Ultrasounds rely on sound waves to produce clearer images of cysts or masses that have yet to be determined as cancerous. This method is also useful in helping the location of tissue so that a biopsy may be performed.

MRI: A MRI, also known as a magnetic resonance imaging, relies upon radio and magnetic waves to capture images of the inside of your breasts. After a dye injection to enhance the image, you will be entered into an MRI for multiple images to help your physician determine if the mass is cancerous and how far it has progressed. You may have to undergo an MRI after a biopsy has confirmed cancer to help your physician determine the stage of the breast cancer.

Biopsy: A biopsy is a common method of diagnosing breast cancer when abnormal cells have been observed or felt during an exam. During a biopsy, a sample of the abnormal cells will be removed and sent to a laboratory for testing. These tests will reveal with type of cancer cells and the aggressiveness of the cancer, which will help determine what type of breast cancer treatment will work best for you.

Breast Cancer Treatment

Patients that have been diagnosed with breast cancer have several options for treatment, which all fall into the category of medical treatment or surgery. These breast cancer treatment plan you and your doctor come up with will be designed to treat your specific type of cancer and stage, as well as your ability to maintain a certain treatment regimen.

Breast cancer treatments have two main goals:

  1. To prevent the cancer from returning if possible
  2. To get rid of the cancer within the body as fully as is possible.

Medical Treatment: The purpose of medical breast cancer treatments is to target the cancerous cells within the body to kill them or reduce their size. Sometimes medical treatments may be combined with surgical treatments to give the patient the best chance of survival. These treatment plans may rely on cancer fighting drugs or other types of therapy that directly targets the cancer cells. These treatments include:

  • Chemotherapy: a cocktail of drugs to destroy cancer cells and prevent them from recurring.
  • Radiation therapy: x-rays that kill cancer cells using a machine aiming beams at the affected areas.
  • Hormone therapy: used for cancers that are sensitive to hormones like estrogen. This can include a variety of drugs based on the hormones that need to be blocked.

Surgery: There are several types of surgery for breast cancer with the goal of getting rid of cancerous lumps and masses or to remove the infected organ altogether. If you have been diagnosed with breast cancer your surgical options include:

  • Lumpectomy to just remove the cancer and preserve the breasts. Usually this surgery is for small tumors that can be easily removed without harming the breast.
  • Sentinel Node Biopsy that removes one lymph node that receives the drainage from the cancer. If this node is found to be non-cancerous then chances are decreased that that cancer will be found in other lymph nodes.
  • Axillary Lymph Node Dissection is used if cancer is found during the sentinel node biopsy. Lymph nodes are removed during this surgery in your armpit.
  • Mastectomy is surgery to remove all tissue in the breasts, effectively leaving the patient without breasts. One or both breasts may be removed depending on the stage of the cancer and the chances of spreading. In some instances, women with a high risk of breast cancer will elect to undergo a double mastectomy.

Many men and women with breast cancer may elect to skip traditional cancer treatments in favor of alternative treatments or in combination with traditional breast cancer treatment plans.


There is no guarantee that breast cancer can be prevented. However there are things you can do to reduce your individual risk of breast cancer.

Women who do not fall within the high risk categories for breast cancer can make simply lifestyle changes that will reduce the risk including limiting alcohol intake, maintaining a healthy diet and maintaining a physically active lifestyle. These small improvements will improve your overall health and minimize your breast cancer risk.

Women with an average risk will also need to limit their hormone therapy for menopause, as these types of therapy have been known to increase risk.

For women who are at a high risk for breast cancer, you can reduce your risk by doing the above things, but also by undergoing preventative cancer medications known as chemo-prevention. The medications used for chemo-prevention block estrogen to reduce your risk of developing breast cancer. Preventive surgery is also an option, but it is something you need to speak with your physician about to fully understand the risks and side effects.


When we talk about a breast cancer prognosis we mean the basic outlook for survival. Traditionally the prognosis is spoken of based on survival rates of people with the same type of cancer over at least 5 years. The numbers you hear—if you choose—will be based on patients who have survived a minimum of 5 years after their breast cancer diagnosis.

It is important that you inform your doctor if you do not wish to know the survival rate of people with your type of cancer. This can be an emotional time and it is up to you to decide if knowing this information will help or harm your treatment.

Although breast cancer prognoses do change as treatments become more effective or cancers are caught earlier, the general rule is that the earlier the stage the better chances of survival a patient has over a 5 year period. The latest numbers from 2001 and 2002 breast cancer rates, show a survival rate of:

  • 93% survival rate for 0-stage
  • 88% for stage I
  • 81% for stage IIA
  • 74% for stage IIB
  • 67% for stage IIIA
  • 41% for stage IIIB
  • 49% for stage IIIC
  • 15% for stage IV

Based on these numbers you can see why self-exams and early detection are important to effective treatment.

Written By Charles Howard

Charles Stanton Howard, MD, is a specialist in Molecular Pathology from the USA. Dr Howard’s educational background includes a BA with the Highest Distinction from the University of Texas, one of the most highly regarded cancer institutes in the world, as well as an MD gained at the University of Virginia.


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