Symptoms and Signs of Breast Cancer

One in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime. If you or a loved one are one of those women, Altru Health System providers are here every step of the way.

Providers at Altru Cancer Center are experts in the diagnosis and treatment of all types of breast cancer. Our team collaborates to create a personalized treatment plan that meets your individual needs. Altru Cancer Center providers also have access to the specialists at the world-renowned Mayo Clinic through the Mayo Clinic Care Network, giving you access to advanced cancer treatments and, in some cases, eliminating the need for you to travel far from home.

What Is Breast Cancer?

Breast cancer is a disease in which abnormal cells become harmful and begin growing rapidly in the breast. Most breast cancers begin in the ducts, which carry milk to the nipple, or the lobules, the glands that produce milk.

Risk Factors for Breast Cancer

You are at risk of breast cancer if a close relative—your mother, sister, daughter or aunt—has had it. Other risk factors include:

  • Age
  • Breast density
  • Genetic mutations, such as those on the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes (which can also cause ovarian cancer)
  • Heavy alcohol use
  • Obesity, especially postmenopausal
  • Some forms of hormone replacement therapy or hormonal birth control
  • Smoking

Symptoms of Breast Cancer

Many times, breast cancer appears without symptoms, which is why regular screenings are so important. But you should contact your doctor right away if you experience any of the following:

  • A lump in the breast
  • Change in the size or shape of a breast or nipple
  • Irritation or dimpling of breast skin
  • Irregular nipple discharge 
  • Pain in breast
  • Redness or flaky skin on the breast
  • Pulling in of the nipple

Diagnosis of Breast Cancer

Women between the ages of 50 to 74 should get a mammogram at least every two years, and women between the ages of 40 to 49 may also need them, depending on family history or other risk factors. Women at high risk for breast cancer, including those with dense breasts, may also need breast MRIs to screen for cancer.

If a suspected tumor is found during a screening, your doctor may order a biopsy to determine if it is cancer. Any cancer cells found will be tested for genetic markers to identify the kind of cancer you have and the best treatment approach.

Types of Breast Cancer

There are many types and subtypes of breast cancer. The two most common types are:

  • Invasive ductal carcinoma
  • Invasive lobular carcinoma

Rarer forms of breast cancer include inflammatory breast cancer, medullary breast cancer, mucinous breast cancer and Paget’s disease.

Treatment for Breast Cancer

Treatment will vary depending on the specific diagnosis, how far the cancer has spread and the likelihood of recurrence. 

  • Most breast cancer patients will undergo surgery to remove the tumor and, in some cases, nearby lymph nodes if the cancer has spread. Some patients may be able to have a lumpectomy, or partial breast removal, while others may need a mastectomy, or complete breast removal. A mastectomy may be followed by breast reconstruction surgery right away or a later date.
  • Some patients will have chemotherapy before surgery to shrink the tumor or after surgery to prevent recurrence. This involves drugs taken by mouth or intravenously that kill cancer cells. Side effects can include hair loss, nausea, weight loss or weight gain.
  • Patients may also receive targeted radiation for several weeks to kill cancer cells.
  • Hormone therapy will likely be recommended for most women. Most of these drugs stop or lower estrogen production, which has been known to spur breast cancer growth.
  • Another treatment option for some women is immunotherapy, which uses cells in your body to attack the cancer cells.

Recovery from Breast Cancer

Recovery from breast cancer will look different for every woman, in large part because of the many variations of the disease. The good news is that recent advances in technology and treatment options have increased longevity. Hormone therapy will likely be part of the recovery process. Women who had much of the chest wall removed during a mastectomy may need physical therapy to rebuild strength.

Your mental health will also need support during recovery. Whatever you’re going through, the entire team at Altru is here for you.

Altru providers can help you navigate our services for breast cancer, including getting you on a regular screening schedule. Call 701.780.5400 to speak to someone on our team.