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Breast Cancer

Breast cancer occurs when abnormal breast cells begin to grow uncontrollably. It can happen to anyone, female or male. However, women are more likely to get breast cancer than men. In fact, in the United States, breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in women after skin cancer.

Breast cancers are different from other types of cancer because they can have certain characteristics, such as being influenced by hormones like estrogen or progesterone, or other types of protein.

Risk Factors For Breast Cancer

Even though there is a lot of discussion about the relationship between genes and the risk of breast cancer, most women who are diagnosed with breast cancer – up to 85 percent – do not have a family history of breast cancer.

Risk factors for breast cancer include:

  • Being of older age
  • Having an early first menstrual period (menarche), having a late first pregnancy, never having been pregnant, or having a late onset of menopause; these all relate to increased lifetime exposure to the estrogen hormone
  • Having a family history of breast cancer
  • Possessing a gene mutation, such as BRCA1, which confers a 72 percent risk of developing breast cancer within your lifetime
  • Being of Ashkenazi Jewish descent
  • Having increased breast density
  • Previous radiation therapy
  • Previous use of a hormonal birth control or other hormonal medications
  • Having previously taken the medication diethylstilbestrol (DES)
  • Smoking
  • Excessively drinking alcohol
  • Having a sedentary lifestyle
  • Being overweight

Types of Breast Cancer

There are many different types of breast cancer, and a tissue biopsy will help decode which type a patient possesses. The most commonly-diagnosed type of breast cancer is called an “invasive ductal carcinoma,” and it accounts for 70 to 80 percent of all breast cancers, according to the American Cancer Society.

Other, less common, types of breast cancer include the following:

  • Invasive lobular carcinoma
  • Ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS)
  • Paget disease of the breast
  • Phyllodes tumor
  • Angiosarcoma

Stages of Breast Cancer

When a patient is diagnosed with breast cancer, it is classified into a “stage.” The stage of cancer describes how far the breast cancer process has progressed. Staging is very important because it dictates the type of treatments that will be used to manage breast cancer.

Staging uses a simple classification system known as T-N-M. The “T” refers to the nature of the tumor itself, the “N” refers to the number of lymph nodes that the cancer has spread to, if any, and the “M” refers to whether the cancer has metastasized, or spread to areas of the body beyond the lymph nodes.

In breast cancer, other factors are also needed to describe the nature of cancer, including whether or not the cancer cells have estrogen or progesterone receptors, and whether or not the cancer cells make an abundance of a protein called Her2. The cancer will also be graded using a numerical system, in order to classify how many of the cells in a tissue sample appear to be normal versus affected by cancer.

All of this information about a person’s particular cancer process is used to assign a specific stage grouping to the breast cancer.

Detection and Diagnosis

Breast cancer can be detected in a number of ways. First, a woman may notice changes in her own breast tissue and she may bring them to the attention of her medical provider. Alternatively, a medical provider may perceive a change in a woman’s breast tissue during a clinical breast exam. Breast cancer may also be detected through a screening mammogram.

If potential breast cancer is detected on a mammogram, other evaluations are needed in order for a woman to receive a definitive breast cancer diagnosis. A medical provider may order another type of imaging study, such as a breast ultrasound or a breast MRI, in order to better evaluate the suspicious breast tissue.

If an ultrasound or MRI of the breast confirms that an area of breast tissue looks suspicious for cancer, then a woman may need to have a breast biopsy. A biopsy is a minimally-invasive procedure in which a surgeon removes a small piece of breast tissue, typically using a small needle. This will allow a medical team to directly visualize the cells in a tissue sample using a microscope, in order to determine whether or not they are cancerous. A biopsy of a nearby lymph node may also be done at the time of a breast biopsy.

If a tissue biopsy shows cancerous cells, a patient will receive an official diagnosis of breast cancer.

When a person is diagnosed with breast cancer, he or she will be connected with a team of medical specialists who will serve as guides throughout the treatment process. The “team captain” of a cancer care team is typically a medical oncologist. Other team members who may be involved in a cancer care team include a breast surgeon, pathologist, radiation oncologist, radiologist, nutritionist, pharmacist, and mental health professional, among others.

Lompoc Mammography Services

Lompoc Valley Medical Center has the latest state-of-the-art equipment for performing digital mammography. Mammography is a special type of imaging that uses small doses of X-ray radiation to find breast cancer in its earliest stages. Mammograms utilize specialized equipment to effectively record images of breast tissue that will record small abnormalities before you ever notice symptoms.

Learn More about Mammography.

Treatment Options For Breast Cancer

Many options are available for breast cancer treatment. Here is an overview of the most common treatment components.

Breast Surgery

One way to treat breast cancer is to physically remove the cancerous cells through surgery. If a cancer is small and localized, a breast surgeon may suggest a “lumpectomy,” which removes the breast tumor itself and the tissue that is touching the breast tissue but leaves the majority of the breast intact. Another type of surgery removes an entire breast. This is known as a “mastectomy.” Some women may have both breasts removed, a process known as a “double mastectomy.” Both types of surgery can be psychologically difficult; however, breast surgery has come a long way in terms of being able to reconstruct and restore the cosmetic appearance of the breasts, depending on a patient’s goals and desires.

Like with any surgery, patients who undergo breast surgery may experience local swelling, bleeding, or bruising, and also risk the possibility of an infection. However, breast surgeons are experts at minimizing these possibilities.

Breast Radiation

Another way to disrupt a breast cancer is to target cancer cells with X-ray energy waves. Sometimes radiation is done in addition to a breast cancer surgery to make sure that no cancerous cells were left behind in the surgical removal. During radiation, patients will receive a daily dose of energy waves to the exact same site on the breast for a specific time period, usually a number of weeks.

Radiation side effects include skin irritation, redness, peeling, or swelling. Patients may also feel tired, nauseous, or sore, but symptoms improve after treatment ends.


Breast cancer chemotherapy can take on many forms. Sometimes it is used before surgery or radiation to shrink a tumor, and sometimes it is used afterward.

Chemotherapies are medications that kill cancer cells by specifically targeting cells in the body that are fast-growing. Unfortunately, they are usually not very selective, and chemotherapy medications can also kill some of the body’s own cells that are rapidly growing, such as cells found in the hair, the mouth, the blood, and the digestive system. For this reason, chemotherapy can cause symptoms like hair loss, altered taste, dry mouth, nausea, vomiting, and bowel troubles. Other side effects of chemotherapy include changes in blood counts, nerve pain, decreased memory, and decreased fertility.

A medical oncologist can help improve many of these symptoms, and most will resolve after chemotherapy.

Other Breast Cancer Therapies

There are many other ways in which cancer treatment teams work to fight breast cancer. Depending on the nature of the cancer, hormonal therapies or immunotherapies may be used. Certain medications may also be used to reduce the chances of cancer recurring after it has gone into remission. Patients who have advanced forms of breast cancer may be able to use other therapies, as well as participate in cancer research studies.

You can learn more about medical oncology here.

Breast Cancer Outlook

Though a diagnosis of cancer can be very frightening, the outlook for patients diagnosed with breast cancer is extraordinary, thanks to years of devoted research and development. In fact, women with invasive localized breast cancer (which is the majority of women who are diagnosed with breast cancer) have a 99 percent five-year survival rate.

Being proactive about breast health by maintaining a healthy lifestyle can improve survival chances for patients who are diagnosed with a more advanced type of breast cancer, as well.