Breast Cancer 101

Tips and info on breast cancer detection, treatment and more

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What is breast cancer? Cancer is a disease in which cells become abnormal and form more cells in an uncontrolled way. With breast cancer, the cancer begins in cells that make up the breasts — usually in the tubes that carry milk to the nipple or the glands that make milk. The cancerous cells form a mass of tissue called a tumor. Sometimes, the cancer spreads to other parts of the body.

Why should I be concerned about breast cancer? Other than skin cancer, breast cancer is the most common cancer in American women. It also is the second-leading cancer killer of women, after lung cancer. Every woman has a chance of getting breast cancer. About 1 in 8 women will find out she has breast cancer at some point in her life. This might sound scary. But today, most women with breast cancer survive it. With breast cancer screening, including mammograms, doctors often can find cancer early. Treatment has the best chance of success when cancer is found early.

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What is a mammogram? A mammogram is a low-dose x-ray exam of the breasts to look for changes that are not normal. The results are recorded on x-ray film or directly into a computer for a doctor called a radiologist to examine.

A mammogram allows the doctor to have a closer look for changes in breast tissue that cannot be felt during a breast exam. It is used for women who have no breast complaints and for women who have breast symptoms, such as a change in the shape or size of a breast, a lump, nipple discharge, or pain. Breast changes occur in almost all women. In fact, most of these changes are not cancer and are called “benign,” but only a doctor can know for sure. Breast changes can also happen monthly, due to your menstrual period.

How is a mammogram done? You stand in front of a special x-ray machine. The person who takes the x-rays, called a radiologic technician, places your breasts, one at a time, between an x-ray plate and a plastic plate. These plates are attached to the x-ray machine and compress the breasts to flatten them. This spreads the breast tissue out to obtain a clearer picture. You will feel pressure on your breast for a few seconds. It may cause you some discomfort; you might feel squeezed or pinched. This feeling only lasts for a few seconds, and the flatter your breast, the better the picture. Most often, two pictures are taken of each breast — one from the side and one from above. A screening mammogram takes about 20 minutes from start to finish.

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How often should I get a mammogram? The United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends: (a) Women ages 50 to 74 years should get a mammogram every 2 years, and (b) Women younger than age 50 should talk to a doctor about when to start and how often to have a mammogram. : :

— Courtesy the Office of Women’s Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, at womenashealth.gov. Reviewed in part by Worta McCaskill-Stevens, M.D., Community Oncology and Prevention Trials Research Group, Division of Cancer Prevention, National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health, and Richard E. Manrow, Ph.D., Associate Director, Office of Cancer Content Management, Office of Communications and Education, National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health.

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