Breast Cancer Awareness: The Basics and Beyond

by Crystal McCoy, MSN,  Family Nurse Practitioner

Breast cancer happens when normal cells in the breast change and grow out of control. Women sometimes discover they have breast cancer because they find a lump in one of their breasts. Breast cancer is much more common in women than in men, but men can get the disease. Breast cancer sometimes runs in families.

Different experts have different recommendations for screening. Starting at age 40, it’s important to talk to your doctor or nurse practitioner about the benefits and drawbacks of screening and decide, with your doctor or nurse’s help, whether to get screening and when. If you’re under 40 but have a relative who got breast cancer at a young age, you should also talk to your doctor or nurse practitioner. Women aged 40 to 74, and some older women who are healthy, might be offered screening with mammograms. Some women who are at high risk of breast cancer might need to begin screening at a younger age. This includes women who: (1) carry genes that increase their risk of breast cancer, such as the “BRCA” genes, and (2) have close relatives (such as a mother, sister, or daughter) who got breast cancer at a young age.

The main benefit of screening is that it helps find cancer early, when it might be easier to treat. This lowers the chances of dying of breast cancer.

If a mammogram finds a spot that looks like it could be cancer, the mammogram is usually followed up with another test called a biopsy. During a biopsy, a doctor takes one or more small samples of tissue from the breast. The doctor can then look at the cells under a microscope to see if they have cancer. If so, the cancer is then staged. Cancer staging is a way in which doctors find out how far a cancer has spread. The right treatment for you will depend, in part, on the stage of your cancer.

Most people with breast cancer have one or more of the following treatments: (1) surgery to remove the cancer, (2) radiation to kill the cancer, (3) chemotherapy to kill the cancer, stop its growth or to keep it from returning, or (4) hormone therapy for cancer growth responsive to certain hormones. Getting treated for breast cancer involves making many choices. Always let your doctors and nurses know how you feel about a treatment. Any time you are offered a treatment, ask: What are the benefits of this treatment? Is it likely to help me live longer? Will it reduce or prevent symptoms? What are the downsides? Are there alternatives? What happens if I do not have this treatment?

Women can have different kinds of problems with their breasts. The important thing to know is that for most but not all women, most breast-related problems are  not  caused by breast cancer. Even so, if you develop any problem with your breasts, see a doctor or nurse practitioner to have it checked out. Partner with a healthcare provider to ensure you receive regular, comprehensive care to not only benefit from early detection of problems but to also communicate plans for further diagnosis and treatment.

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