What You Need to Know About Breast Cancer

Nora Lynn Henry, MD
October 9, 2018
Norah Lynn Henry, MD

Dr. Norah Lynn Henry is an Associate Professor in the University of Utah's Division of Oncology in the Department of Medicine. She is Leader of the Women’s Cancers Disease Center at the Huntsman Cancer Institute. Dr. Henry is the Cancer.Net Associate Editor for Breast Cancer.

Most people know someone who has breast cancer. But do you know how common the disease really is? In the United States, 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed in her lifetime. That means more women are diagnosed with this cancer than any other, excluding skin cancer.share on twitter The good news is that there are fewer deaths from breast cancer each year, in part because of new treatments.

Here are 9 key facts about breast cancer.

  1. 1. Anyone can get breast cancer.

    Breast cancer is more common after menopause, but younger women can develop it too. Men can also be diagnosed with the disease, although it’s rare. There are some factors that increase the risk of developing breast cancer, including being overweight (in older women) and greater amounts of alcohol use. However, for most people diagnosed with breast cancer, doctors can’t identify a specific cause.

  2. 2. Screening can find early breast cancer.

    Finding breast cancer at an early stage with tests like mammograms is important. Women should talk with their doctors about when to be screened for breast cancer and how often.

  3. 3. Family history is an important risk factor for breast cancer.

    While most people diagnosed with breast cancer don’t have a family history of the disease, some do. About 1 in every 10 or 20 women with breast cancer has a change in a gene that increases her risk. If you have several family members with breast cancer, especially breast cancer occurring before age 50, or relatives with ovarian, pancreatic, or prostate cancer, talk to your doctor about testing for genetic causes of cancer.

  4. 4. There are different kinds of breast cancer.

    • Hormone receptor-positive: About two-thirds of breast cancers are fed by the hormone estrogen. This means that estrogen in the body helps the tumor grow. The treatment for hormone receptor-positive breast cancer typically includes drugs that block the effects of hormones, although it may also include chemotherapy.

    • HER2-positive: About 1 in 5 breast cancers have extra copies of a type of protein called HER2 that helps tumor cells grow. Antibodies that block this protein help treat the cancer. Although HER2-positive breast cancer tends to be more aggressive, many new antibodies and other medicines are very effective treatments.

    • Triple-negative: This means that none of the common proteins are found in this type of breast cancer. It isn’t fed by hormones and is HER2-negative. Typically, triple-negative breast cancer is treated with chemotherapy, but many new treatment drugs for it are in development.

  5. 5. People with breast cancer are often treated by a cancer care team

    Many different people with different specialties are often included in the cancer care team. This is called a multidisciplinary team. A breast cancer care team may include:

    • Surgeons. A surgeon generally removes the tumor in the breast and surrounding lymph nodes.

    • Radiation oncologists. A radiation oncologist treats cancer using radiation therapy, which is often given after surgery to decrease the risk of cancer coming back in the breast and chest area.

    • Medical oncologists. Medical oncologists treat breast cancer with drugs such as chemotherapy, anti-hormone therapy, and other targeted therapies to decrease the chance of cancer returning or to treat cancer that has spread throughout the body.

    • Oncology nurse. Oncology nurses serve many roles in cancer care. An oncology nurse may give physical examinations, give chemotherapy and other medications, coordinate care with the other members of the cancer care team, provide education and counseling to patients and families, and more.

    • Social workers. Clinical social workers help patients, family members, and other caregivers cope with everyday tasks and challenges before, during, and after breast cancer treatment.

    • Genetic counselors. Genetic counselors discuss whether or not genetic testing is appropriate based on an individual’s personal and family history of breast cancer and other cancers.

    • Financial counselors. Financial counselors help with insurance-related issues and financial aid.

  6. 6. Treatment options depend on the type of breast cancer and the stage.

    The type of breast cancer and the stage of disease are the key pieces of information that doctors use to decide the best treatment approach. The type of breast cancer provides important clues about which medicines the cancer is likely to respond to. The stage of cancer is determined by the size of the tumor and whether nearby lymph nodes or other sites in the body are involved. Some people have surgery first. Others have drug therapy first to try to shrink the cancer and then have surgery. People should talk with their doctor about the treatment approach that’s best for them.

    Treatment through a clinical trial is also often an option at all stages of breast cancer and throughout the course of treatment. Clinical trials are how we learned about many of the very effective treatments that are regularly used today. Doctors can provide information on opportunities to join a study.

  7. 7. Different people experience breast cancer treatment differently.

    Sometimes chemotherapy is recommended to reduce the chances that breast cancer will come back. Most people who get chemotherapy have fewer side effects than they expect, but it’s hard to predict how a treatment will affect an individual. Doctors work to prevent symptoms, but often people will still have some side effects. Therefore, it’s very important to understand how to take supportive medications—for nausea, diarrhea, pain, or other symptoms—that can be used at home between clinic visits.

    It’s essential that people know who to call if they’re having side effects from treatment or if they have new symptoms that are concerning them. Most cancer centers have health care providers available around the clock.

  8. 8. Care for breast cancer doesn’t end after initial treatment is finished.

    Most people with breast cancer will continue to meet with their health care team on a regular basis. The team will check to make sure the cancer hasn’t returned, manage any side effects, and monitor overall health. This is called follow-up care. For women who have not had both breasts removed, it’s generally recommended that they continue to have regular mammograms to screen for new breast cancers. Women with hormone receptor-positive cancer typically take anti-hormone pills for years following their diagnosis.

    It’s also important for individuals to continue to follow up with their primary care doctor for management of other illnesses, such as diabetes and heart disease, and screening for other cancers, such as colon and cervical cancers. People who have been diagnosed with breast cancer should be sure to let their doctor know about their history of the disease and what treatments they received. Having a survivorship care plan can help keep all of this information in a single place.

  9. 9. There are many resources for people with breast cancer.

  10. People with breast cancer don’t have to face it alone. In addition to the assistance provided by clinic social workers, there are many support and advocacy groups for people and families affected by breast cancer. Although everyone should be careful when seeking resources on the internet, there are reliable websites like Cancer.Net and the National Cancer Institute’s Cancer.Gov that contain a lot of useful information about breast cancer. Doctors can also provide recommendations for resources and support.