About Breast Cancer

Use this page as a resource hub to learn more about the signs, symptoms and risks of breast cancer.

What Are My Risk Factors for Breast Cancer?

The most important risk factors for breast cancer are:

  • Being a woman
  • Aging

Over 70 percent of women who develop the disease have only these two risk factors. The risk of breast cancer increases as a woman gets older. This is even more important after the age of 50. Most breast cancers are found in women 55 and older.

Other factors are known to increase the risk of breast cancer. These fall under two major categories:

  • Those that cause moderately higher risk
  • Those that cause a slightly higher risk

Having one or more risk factors doesn’t guarantee that the disease will occur.

For more information, call 1‑800‑CEDARS‑1.

Breast Cancer Symptoms and Diagnosis

The following symptoms don’t mean you have breast cancer. Your doctor should make an examination soon after they are noticed:

  • A lump in your breast or underarm area
  • Thickening, dimpling or pitting of the breast
  • Nipple discharge that is either clear yellow or bloody
  • Nipples pointing inward (inversion or retraction)
  • The breasts looking uneven
  • Redness of the breast
  • Change in the appearance of the breast or nipple
  • Itchy rash on the nipple

Common types of noncancerous breast problems include:

  • Cysts
  • Lumps
  • Thickening
  • Breast pain
  • Discharge from the nipple
  • Breast infection

If you notice a lump in your breast and are still menstruating, wait one cycle. If the lump is still present after one cycle, call your doctor. If you find a breast lump or thickening and you no longer have periods, call your doctor.

Examination: First, your doctor will look at your breasts and feel for any lumps. After studying your breasts, your doctor will decide if more tests are needed. Diagnostic tests include:

  • Mammography
  • Ultrasonography
  • Biopsy (histology)

If a biopsy is needed, it may happen in one of several ways:

  • Office core or fine needle aspiration biopsy
  • Stereotactic biopsy using a mammogram
  • Ultrasound-guided core needle biopsy
  • Surgical excisional biopsy

Depending on the procedure, these happen either in the office, the radiology department or the operating room. If the biopsy happens in the operating room, intravenous sedation is used. It usually does not need a hospital stay.

Breast infections are relatively uncommon. Pain can be generalized (the whole breast hurts or throbs) or localized (the breast hurts in one area). Generalized breast pain is caused by an inflammation called "mastitis" and can be associated with:

  • Breast-feeding
  • Pregnancy
  • Cancer treatment

A localized breast infection can be linked to:

  • An abscess
  • A noncontagious infection of the connective tissue beneath the skin (cellulitis)
  • Contagious inflammation or infection of one or more hair follicles of the skin (folliculitis)
  • Other skin or soft tissue damage

Breast infections can become serious and create fever or affect the whole body. You should seek treatment for a breast infection promptly.

Treatment: Breast infections are often treated with antibiotics. Heat, pain relievers, surgery and draining the site may also be needed.

Nipple discharge can be linked with hormonal or normal aging changes (ductal ectasia). It is common for nipple discharge to occur:

  • Rarely
  • In tiny drops
  • During a breast self-exam
  • During other breast manipulation

When nipple discharge occurs on its own or you notice staining of your bra or nightclothes, talk to your doctor. See your doctor for other nipple discharge that includes:

  • Bloody discharge
  • Spontaneous clear or yellow discharge
  • Persistent one-sided discharge

Discharge that is slightly milky and coming from both breasts could be the result of pregnancy or certain supplemental hormones and medications. All nipple discharge should be examined by your doctor.

Examination: Complaints of nipple discharge are addressed with breast exam and imaging studies. The doctor will try to find out:

  • Where the discharge is coming from
  • If there is blood in the discharge
  • What types of cells are in the discharge (cytology)
  • If the discharge has bacteria in it

Breast pain may occur at almost any age and can have any number of causes. The pain can be:

  • One-sided
  • On both sides
  • Constant
  • Frequent
  • Occasional
  • Sharp
  • Dull
  • Aching
  • Sticking sensations
Woman with hands over chest

Some common reasons for breast pain are hormonal changes caused by:

  • Your period (menstruation)
  • Pregnancy
  • Perimenopause
  • Menopause
  • Muscular straining of the chest wall, upper back and shoulders

Fortunately, breast pain is rarely a sign of cancer.

Examination: A full study of the:

  • Breasts
  • Lymph nodes
  • Muscles of the chest and shoulders

The doctor will use one or more diagnostic tests such as:

  • Mammography
  • Ultrasonography
  • Needle aspiration of cysts

The doctor will also talk to you about your:

  • Caffeine intake
  • Medications
  • Hormones
  • Diuretics
  • Birth control
  • Type of support bra
  • Daily activities

All women should begin getting mammograms each year starting at the age of 40. Women at an increased risk because of family or personal history should begin screening before 40. View comprehensive mammogram screening guidelines from the American Cancer Society.

If you're concerned or would like more information, call 1‑800‑CEDARS‑1.

Woman getting a mammogram
What Happens If My Doctor Suspects Breast Cancer?

If cancer is suspected, a biopsy will be performed. This involves removing tissue and looking at it under a microscope for cancerous cells.

If you’re concerned or would like more information, call 1‑800‑CEDARS‑1.

Breast Cancer Screenings and Early Detection

Detecting and treating breast cancer early on can save lives and increases the chance of a woman having:

  • More treatment options, including breast-conserving treatments
  • A complete recovery
  • A better outlook

Some women have a higher risk of getting breast cancer for reasons that can involve:

Who should do a breast self-exam

Who Should Do a Breast Self-Exam

All women 20 years of age or older should try to become familiar with their breasts on a monthly basis.

Monthly self-exams have two parts:

  • A physical exam that feels for any lumps or unusual skin changes
  • A visual exam that looks for any unusual changes in the appearance of the breast

We recommend you do physical breast self-exams while lying down rather than standing up. This is because when lying down, the breast tissue spreads evenly over the chest area and is as thin as possible. This makes it much easier to feel all the breast tissue. To perform a self-exam, follow these steps:

  1. Lie down on your back with your right arm resting behind your head. 
  2. Use the fingers of the three middle fingers on your left hand to feel for lumps in the right breast. Move the fingers in circles about the size of a dime over the breast tissue. The circles should overlap to make sure all of the breast tissue is felt. 
  3. Use three different levels of pressure to feel all the breast tissue:
    • Light pressure to feel the tissue closest to the skin
    • Medium pressure to feel a little deeper
    • Firm pressure to feel the tissue closest to the chest and ribs
  4. It is normal to feel a hard, rounded bone in the lower curve of each breast. You should tell your clinician if you feel anything else that isn't normal. If you're not sure how hard to press, talk with your practitioner. Use each pressure level to feel the breast tissue before moving on to the next spot.
  5. Move around the breast in an up-and-down pattern. To do this, start at an imaginary line straight down your side from the underarm. Move across the breast to the middle of the chest bone. Be sure to check the entire breast area by going down until you feel only ribs and up to the neck or collarbone. Think of "mowing the lawn." As you move up and down using the pads of your fingers, use three pressures moving about the size of a dime and slide your fingers.
  6. Repeat the exam on your left breast, putting your left arm behind your head and using the finger pads of your right hand to do the exam.

Noticing any changes in how the breast looks is another important part of the self-exam.

  1. Stand in front of a mirror with your hands pressing firmly down on your hips. When pressing on the hips in this way, the muscles of the chest tighten and show any changes in the breast.
  2. Look at your breasts for any changes of size, shape or any unusual dimples in the skin. Look to see if the breast or nipple is red or dry.
  3. Look at each underarm while sitting or standing and with your arm slightly raised so you can easily feel in this area. Raising your arm straight up tightens the tissue in this area and makes it harder to examine.

Look for any of the following changes:

  • Changes in the skin texture of the breast or nipple
  • Lumps in the breast or in the underarms
  • Color changes of the breast or nipple
  • Changes in the look of the breast
  • A nipple that is turned inward
  • Any unusual discharge from the nipple that is spontaneous

If you're concerned or would like more information, call 1-800-CEDARS-1.