Center for Health and Successful Living

Breast Cancer FAQ

Q: What is cancer?

A: Cancer is a term used for diseases in which abnormal cells divide without control and are able to invade other tissues. Cancer cells can spread to other parts of the body through the blood and lymph systems. Cancer is not just one disease but many diseases. There are more than 100 different types of cancer. Most cancers are named for the organ or type of cell in which they start - for example, cancer that begins in the colon is called colon cancer; cancer that begins in melanocytes of the skin is called melanoma.

Q: How does cancer form?

A: All cancers begin in cells, the body's basic unit of life. To understand cancer, it's helpful to know what happens when normal cells become cancer cells. The body is made up of many types of cells. These cells grow and divide in a controlled way to produce more cells as they are needed to keep the body healthy. When cells become old or damaged, they die and are replaced with new cells. However, sometimes this orderly process goes wrong. The genetic material (DNA) of a cell can become damaged or changed, producing mutations that affect normal cell growth and division. When this happens, cells do not die when they should and new cells form when the body does not need them. The extra cells may form a mass of tissue called a tumor.

Q: What are common types of cancer?

  • Carcinoma - cancer that begins in the skin or in tissues that line or cover internal organs. There are a number of subtypes of carcinoma, including adenocarcinoma, basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and transitional cell carcinoma.
  • Sarcoma - cancer that begins in bone, cartilage, fat, muscle, blood vessels, or other connective or supportive tissue.
  • Leukemia - cancer that starts in blood-forming tissue such as the bone marrow and causes large numbers of abnormal blood cells to be produced and enter the blood.
  • Lymphoma and myeloma - cancers that begin in the cells of the immune system.
  • Central nervous system cancers - cancers that begin in the tissues of the brain and spinal cord.

Q: What are different types of tumors?

  • Benign tumors aren't cancerous. They can often be removed, and, in most cases, they do not come back. Cells in benign tumors do not spread to other parts of the body.
  • Malignant tumors are cancerous. Cells in these tumors can invade nearby tissues and spread to other parts of the body. The spread of cancer from one part of the body to another is called metastasis.

Q: What is breast cancer?

A: Breast cancer is a type of cancer where cells in the breast tissue divide and grow without the usual controls on cell death and cell division.

Q: What causes breast cancer?

A: It's a question women want a straight answer to. At the present time, scientists believe that breast cancer is caused by a combination of both known and unknown factors including genetics (such as family history of breast cancer), lifestyle choices (such as diet and alcohol use) and reproductive factors (such as age of menarche and menopause).

Q: What are the signs of breast cancer?

A: The signs of breast cancer are not the same for all women. In fact, some women have no signs that they can see. If you experience any of these symptoms, you should see a doctor right away:

  • A lump, hard knot or thickening
  • Swelling, warmth, redness or darkening
  • Change in breast size or shape
  • Dimpling or puckering of the skin
  • Itchy, scaly sore or rash on the nipple
  • Pulling in of your nipple or other parts of the breast
  • Nipple discharge that starts suddenly
  • New pain in one spot

Q: What are fibrocystic changes?

A: Lumpiness plus tenderness or pain at certain times of the month is called fibrocystic breast changes. These changes are a normal part of the menstrual cycle. Women are most likely to notice them in the premenstrual phase of the cycle, or if women are past menopause, when taking hormones. Fibrocystic changes do not increase your chance of getting breast cancer. In contrast, a breast lump that should be checked is one that does not change with your cycle. Any persistent lump or thickening should be checked by your health care provide



Q: What are some risks that may cause breast cancer?

  • Age: a major factor. A woman’s chance of getting breast cancer increases with age. Your chance by your current age is:
    • age 20 1 in 1,681
    • age 30 1 in 232
    • age 40 1 in 69
    • age 50 1 in 42
    • age 60 1 in 29
    • age 70 1 in 27
    • Lifetime 1 in 8

• being a woman

• getting older

• having an inherited BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation

• having a personal history of breast or ovarian cancer

• having a family history of breast cancer

• having high breast density on a mammogram

• having a previous biopsy showing hyperplasia

• having a history of lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS)

• being exposed to large amounts of radiation at a young age

• never having children

• having your first child after age 35

• having high levels of blood androgens or estrogens

• using (current or recent use) menopausal hormones

• being overweight after menopause or gaining weight as an adult

• having high bone density

• having more than one drink of alcohol per day

• starting menopause after age 55

• being younger than 12 at the time of your first period

Last Updated: 6/27/22