Frequently Asked Questions About Breast Cancer

At the Henry Ford Cancer Institute, we understand the need to reduce anxiety and find accurate answers to questions about breast cancer. We will make sure you have all the information and support you need, as we guide you and your family through the diagnostic process, treatment and follow-up care.

Our team of medical professionals includes fellowship-trained breast cancer surgeons, breast reconstructive surgeons, radiation oncologists, medical oncologists, gynecologic oncologists and nurses. We are dedicated to teamwork and providing you with compassionate and expert healthcare. To get you started, here are some frequently asked questions.

Our nurses are available 24/7 to answer your questions. Call us at (888) 777-4167.

Breast Cancer Basics

Breast Cancer Symptoms and Diagnosis

Breast Cancer Tereatment


Who is most likely to get breast cancer?

Women most likely to get breast cancer have:

  • History of cancer in one breast
  • History of certain non-cancerous breast cysts or tumors
  • Inherited breast cancer genes
  • Not had children
  • Post-menopausal obesity
  • Radiation exposure to the chest wall
  • Reached age 50 or more

Are ovarian cancer and breast cancer related?

Ovarian cancer and breast cancer may be related by a gene mutation inherited from a blood relative. Also, sometimes ovarian cancer may spread from the ovaries to other areas of the body, including the breast.

What are the chances of surviving breast cancer?

Surviving breast cancer varies by the stage of breast cancer. Approximately 99 out of 100 people with stage 1 breast cancer in only one breast will be alive five years or more after diagnosis and treatment. The five-year survival rate is 85 percent when breast cancer has moved into the lymph nodes, and it is 27 percent when the disease has moved into distant organs.

Can breast cancer spread?

Breast cancer can spread to normal tissue in the breast. Also, the disease can move to the lymph nodes, liver, lungs, bones and brain. When the cancer spreads or moves beyond the breast and axillary (underarm) lymph nodes, it is called metastatic or advanced breast cancer.

Why is breast cancer more common in females?

Breast cancer is most common in women because they have more breast cells than men. Female hormones in a woman’s breast cells can promote the growth of cancer. Breast cancer is about 100 times more common in women than in men.

Does a family history of breast cancer increase my risk?

A family history of breast cancer can increase the risk of the disease. Two inherited genes — BRCA1 and BRCA2 — can increase the risk of breast cancer and ovarian cancer. However, about 80 percent of breast cancers that occur in women who do not have a family history of the disease.

Who is at the highest risk for breast cancer?

The highest risk for breast cancer is in women who are aged 55 or older, have a family history of breast cancer and have the inherited gene BRCA1 or BRCA2. Other gene mutations may cause breast cancer, but they are less common.

Can race/ethnicity affect my breast cancer risk?

Race/ethnicity can affect breast cancer risk.

  • White, non-Hispanic women have the highest lifetime incidence of breast cancer
  • African-American women between the ages of 40 and 50 have a higher rate than white women
  • Asian-American, Native-American and Native-Alaskan women have the lowest rate of breast cancer

Should I get genetic testing to determine my breast cancer risk?

Consider genetic testing for the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene if you or a family member have/had:

  •  A history of cancer of the breast, ovary, or fallopian tube
  • Breast cancer diagnosed before age 50
  • Multiple breast cancers in the family
  • Male breast cancer in the family
  • Ashkenazi Jewish ethnicity
  • A family history of prostate cancer or pancreatic cancer

What are symptoms of breast cancer?

The most common symptoms of breast cancer include:

  • A lump or thickening in the breast or armpit
  • Swelling or skin irritation in the breast or nipple
  • Discharge or dimpling in the nipple or breast

It’s important to note that a mammogram may find the disease when no symptoms exist.

Can menstruation affect breast cancer?

Menstruation, particularly having early periods and a late menopause, can affect the development of breast cancer. The total number of years that a woman has her periods increases her exposure to estrogen and progesterone — factors that are associated with a higher risk of breast cancer as she ages.

Can breast cancer affect your periods?

Breast cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy and radiation, may cause you to miss your periods.

Is a mammogram the only way to screen for breast cancer?

Mammograms are the most common way to screen for breast cancer. However, a traditional mammogram may not show small tumors in women who have dense breasts with high amounts of glandular and fibrous tissue. Digital breast tomosynthesis (DBT), breast ultrasound and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)  may find some cancers that a traditional mammogram cannot find.

What screening is best for women with dense breasts?

The best screening method for women with dense breasts is a digital breast tomosynthesis (DBT) mammogram, also called 3-D mammogram. X-rays take layer-by-layer images of dense breast tissue to create a 3-D image. Tiny details of breast tissue can be seen. They help to identify early stage cancer.

Are there different types of breast cancer?

There are different types of breast cancer. The three most common ones start in the milk ducts and milk-producing glands.

  • Ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS)
  • Invasive ductal carcinoma
  • Invasive lobular carcinoma

Less common breast cancers start in the muscle, fat, or connective tissue:

  • Sarcomas
  • Phyllodes
  • Paget disease
  • Angiosarcomas

How is breast cancer diagnosed?

Breast cancer may be diagnosed with a:

  • Diagnostic mammogram that takes detailed X-rays of breast tissue
  • Breast ultrasound that uses sound waves to create detailed images of breast tissue
  • Breast magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) that uses magnets linked to a computer to create detailed pictures of the breast
  • Biopsy that removes tissue or fluid from the breast and is studied under a microscope

Which breast cancer has the best prognosis?

The best prognosis for breast cancer depends on the cancer stage, characteristics and type of cancer, such as:

  • Ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), called stage 0 breast cancer
  • Luminal A breast cancer tumors that grow slowly
  • Tubular carcinoma and mucinous (colloid) carcinoma which seldom spread to the lymph nodes

How is breast cancer stage determined?

Breast cancer stage is most commonly determined by:

  • Tumor size and cancer growth into adjoining areas
  • Nearby diseased lymph nodes
  • Metastasis (or spread) of cancer into the liver, lungs, or other organs
  • Estrogen receptor protein involvement
  • Progesterone receptor protein involvement
  • HER2 protein excess
  • Visual appearance of the cancer cells

Can breast cancer be cured?

Certain doctors consider a patient cured if she does not have cancer symptoms for five or more years after treatment. However, in other women, cancer cells may remain alive for many years, and it is unknown if or when the disease will ever return.

How is breast cancer treated?

Breast cancer is treated in several ways: surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, hormone therapy and biological therapy. Treatments depend on several factors, including:

  • Type of breast cancer
  • Tumor size and stage
  • Patient’s age
  • Patient’s health condition

What are the different types of breast cancer treatments?

Breast cancer patients may receive one or more of these treatments:

Where in the body can breast cancer spread?

Breast cancer can spread to the lymph nodes, liver, lungs, bones and brain. Cancer that has spread from the breast to other areas is called advanced or metastatic cancer.

How often does breast cancer return?

The risk of breast cancer returning depends on the original cancer’s size, growth rate, number of lymph nodes with cancer and response to treatments.

In 10 percent of breast cancer patients with a small, slow-growing tumor, cancer will recur outside the breast within 15 years after surgery, if:

  • The tumor is responsive to hormone treatments
  • Lymph nodes were free of cancer
  • All treatment recommendations are followed

In 40 percent of breast cancer patients with a large, fast-growing tumor, cancer will recur outside the breast within 15 years after surgery, if:

  • The tumor is responsive to hormone treatments
  • Four or more nearby lymph nodes contained cancer
  • All treatment recommendations are followed

Do you need to get a mastectomy if you have breast cancer?

Mastectomy is required when a lumpectomy cannot be done. The most common reasons are if the tumor is too large or if the patient cannot receive the required radiation treatment.

Do all breast cancer patients need chemotherapy?

Not all breast cancer patients need chemotherapy. Receiving chemotherapy depends on the risk of cancer returning and the need to destroy undetected cancer cells. New tests can provide valuable information for chemotherapy decision-making. The tests can identify numerous genes in tumor cells and predict how breast cancer may progress in 10 years.

When does breast cancer treatment require radiation therapy?

Radiation therapy is required to destroy any microscopic breast cancer cells in the:

  • Breast after a lumpectomy operation
  • Chest wall after a mastectomy if the tumor is greater than 5 centimeters
  • Lymph nodes along with the breast or chest wall if the lymph nodes contain cancer
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