Six Surprising Facts About Breast Cancer

Knowledge is power, and when it comes to breast cancer, it can ease your fears and maybe even save your life. While breast cancer is one of the most common cancers in women, there are still some things you may not know about it. Here are six lesser-known facts about breast cancer you should know.

1. Not all lumps are cancerous.

Only a small percentage of breast lumps turn out to be cancer.

“For many women, it actually is just their normal dense breast tissue that they’re feeling, or it could be just a fluid-filled benign cyst,” says Barbara Dull, MD, UNC REX breast surgical oncologist.

Still, if you discover a persistent lump in your breast or notice any changes in breast tissue, don’t ever ignore it. Make an appointment to see your doctor for a clinical breast exam. He or she may order breast imaging studies to determine if the lump is of concern or not.

2. Men can get breast cancer, too.

Each year about 2,670 men will be diagnosed with breast cancer (less than 1 percent of all breast cancer diagnosed). While this number is small, men still should check themselves periodically by doing a breast self-exam while in the shower and report any changes to their physicians.

Most of the time, breast cancer in men is discovered because they had a lump in their breast. Nipple discharge in men is also a warning sign, Dr. Dull says.

3. Only 10 to 15 percent of breast cancers are tied to family history.

While a family history of breast cancer can place you in a higher risk group, only 10 to 15 percent of individuals diagnosed with breast cancer have a family history of it.

“I see many patients in my office diagnosed with breast cancer who are shocked at the diagnosis because they have no family history of the disease,” Dr. Dull says.

And if you have a family history of breast cancer, it is not a guarantee that you will end up having breast cancer yourself, but Dr. Dull says you may need to start your mammograms earlier.

“Generally, we recommend you start 10 years prior to the earliest breast cancer diagnosis in your family. And that can be from either your mom or dad’s side of the family,” Dr. Dull says.

If you have several family members who have had breast cancer, especially under age 50, the probability increases that there is a breast cancer gene contributing to the cause of this familial history.

“It’s always good to see a specialist so we can assess your lifetime risk of developing breast cancer based on your family history,” Dr. Dull says.

4. Breast pain is common and usually not a sign of breast cancer.

Breast pain is a common symptom for many women but rarely is a sign of breast cancer. More than 60 percent of women will have breast pain in their lifetime, and this is usually related to hormonal changes, benign masses, larger breast size or wearing an ill-fitting bra.

“Of all women evaluated for breast pain, less than 1 percent are found to have breast cancer,” Dr. Dull says.

5. Ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) is considered breast cancer.

DCIS is a noninvasive form of breast cancer that has started in the milk ducts of the breast but has not spread to surrounding tissue. It is considered stage 0 breast cancer.

“DCIS can develop into an invasive breast cancer, so it is treated similarly,” Dr. Dull says. “We currently can’t predict which patients with DCIS will develop invasive breast cancers and which will not, but research is ongoing to help answer that question. The goal is to identify patients at high risk of developing invasive breast cancer and target treatment appropriately.”

6. Chemotherapy does not depend on the type of surgery you have.

Two types of surgical options are used to treat cancer in the breast: a mastectomy or a lumpectomy. Chemotherapy treats any breast cancer cells that cannot be treated through surgery or radiation because it affects the whole body.

“The decision on whether or not a patient needs chemotherapy depends on the size of the breast cancer, whether it has spread to the lymph nodes or other parts of the body, and which tumor markers it has, and is not impacted by which type of surgery is done on the breast,” Dr. Dull says.

When it comes to breast cancer, the most important thing to remember is that early detection is key. Early detection includes scheduling regular clinical breast exams and mammograms. Along with these recommended exams, women need to be aware of how their breasts normally look and feel and should report any changes to their doctor right away.

If you’re concerned about your risk for breast cancer, talk to your doctor. If you need a doctor, find one near you.