Breast Cancer Awareness Month: Let’s Talk Risk Factors, Signs, Screening, and Support

October 6, 2021
A mother and daughter lie beside each other in the grass smiling.

Stock photo: Unsplash

When Heather was diagnosed with stage 1 triple negative breast cancer in 2016, she hadn’t noticed any warning signs. Instead, it was a routine mammogram that led to her diagnosis. “I always did my regular screenings,” says Heather. “I was getting mammograms twice a year.” Because her breast cancer was caught early, Heather was able to consider many treatment options. Since completing treatment, her outcome has been wonderful, she says.

Still, Heather faced tough challenges on her journey. Just days before she received her diagnosis, her husband learned he had esophageal cancer. The couple, who are also parents, had to navigate a difficult conversation with their sons about their diagnoses. Heather’s family turned to support groups, including a program at her son’s school offered by their local Cancer Support Community center. “That had a tremendous impact on my journey,” she says.

Learn more: Talking to kids about cancer

Today Heather is the executive director of our Research and Training Institute, which conducts novel psychosocial, behavioral, and survivorship research to support CSC's mission. She continues to be a strong advocate for routine breast cancer screening.

Regular monitoring is the best way to catch breast cancer early. Female breast cancer is the most diagnosed cancer in the United States. In recognition of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we share important information about the disease, from risk factors to support resources. Keep reading for key things to know.

 

Types of Breast Cancer

Breast cancer forms in the tissues of the breast. It can occur in both men and women, but it is much more common in females. Different types of breast cancer include:

  • Ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) – Abnormal cells are present in the breast duct but have not spread beyond the lining of the duct to surrounding tissue. DCIS is noninvasive and is often considered a pre-cancer. It is also most often diagnosed by screening mammograms.
  • Invasive ductal carcinoma – This is the most common type of breast cancer among women. It forms in the tubes that carry milk to the breast. It can be diagnosed on screening mammograms but may also present as a mass you can feel.
  • Invasive lobular carcinoma – This type forms in the glands or lobules of the breast.
  • Inflammatory breast cancer – This type grows in sheets instead of lumps and presents like a rash. Its symptoms are noticeable and usually lead a person to seek medical attention.

When breast cancer spreads to other parts of the body, it’s called metastatic breast cancer. This is stage 4 breast cancer. When breast cancer spreads, it most commonly spreads to the bones, lungs, liver, and brain.

Risk Factors

Research is improving our knowledge of the causes of breast cancer. While most breast cancer cases develop spontaneously, there are some known risk factors. These include:

  • Family history and genetic susceptibility
    • About 5%-10% of all breast cancers are caused by a hereditary genetic mutation.
    • Women with BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations have an increased risk of developing breast cancer.
    • Women are at higher risk if they have a strong family history of breast or ovarian cancer on either the maternal or paternal side.
  • Personal history of breast abnormalities – Ductal carcinoma in situ (DISC) and lobular neoplasia are associated with increased risk.
  • Age – Risk increases with age. Most breast cancer cases occur in women older than age 60.
  • Age at first menstrual period – Women who had their first menstrual period before age 12 have a slightly increased risk.
  • Breast density – Women with dense breasts may have an increased risk of developing breast cancer. This risk factor is currently being investigated.
  • Childbirth – Women who have never given birth or who gave birth to their first child after age 30 are slightly more at risk.
  • Race – White women have a greater risk of developing breast cancer than Black women. However, Black women are more likely to have an aggressive subtype of breast cancer.

An estimated 281,550 women will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer in 2021.

 

Signs & Symptoms

The classic symptom for breast cancer is a lump found in the breast or armpit. The following symptoms require a medical exam and evaluation:

  • Swelling or lump (mass) in the breast
  • Swelling in the armpit (lymph nodes)
  • Nipple discharge (spontaneous and from one side only)
  • Pain in the nipple
  • Inverted nipple and/or scaly or pitted skin on nipple
  • Unusual breast pain or discomfort

If you experience any of these symptoms, speak with your health care provider right away.

Newly diagnosed with cancer? Manage the treatment decision process.

 

Screening

Breast cancer is most treatable at an early stage. Regular monitoring is key to catching it early. There are many ways to detect or screen for breast cancer, including:

  • Breast self-exam – A monthly breast self-exam will help you notice changes to your breasts’ texture, size, and skin condition. Women who do breast self-exams know how their breasts normally look and feel and can see changes sooner. Do not hesitate to talk to a doctor or nurse if you have a question about your breasts.
  • Clinical breast exam – A doctor checks the breasts, underarms, and collarbone area for abnormalities. A clinical breast exam should be a part of a regular visit to a gynecologist or a primary care doctor.
  • Screening mammogram – A mammogram is a breast x-ray that can show a lump or abnormality. A mammogram can show a breast lump or abnormality before it can be felt. Talk to your doctor to find out when to have a mammogram.  

“I never really thought of myself as a very strong person. That changed when I was diagnosed with cancer. I realized I was strong enough to handle anything thrown my way.”

 Laurie, cancer survivor

 

Breast Cancer Resources & Support

Our recent research reveals the impact breast cancer can have on women’s quality of life and distress. For example, 48% of breast cancer participants who joined our Cancer Experience Registry were at risk for clinically significant levels of anxiety. Additionally, 1 out of 2 breast cancer participants were moderately to very seriously concerned about sleep problems.

If you are living with breast cancer or are a caregiver to someone with breast cancer, these resources can help ease the burden of your journey:  

Another place to turn for support is MyLifeLine.org, CSC's free digital support community for people impacted by cancer. MyLifeLine members have access to 14 different discussion boards, including our Living With Breast Cancer board. Members can also create a private support website to keep their friends and family updated about their cancer journey. In addition, they can organize help for things like meals and rides to medical appointments. For people navigating a cancer diagnosis, MyLifeLine is a one-stop experience, notes Heather. “I think it’s valuable and critical to streamline communication, give updates in a seamless way, and allow yourself to be vulnerable and ask for help,” she says. “All of that helps with your outcome.”