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Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine


Fact sheet

What are the breasts?
What is breast cancer?
How common is breast cancer?

Who is at risk of getting breast cancer?
How do you lower your risk of breast cancer?
Who should get breast cancer screening tests?
What are the symptoms of breast cancer?
Where can I get more information?




What are the breasts?
The breasts are glandular organs on the chest.  Each breast has several sections called lobes. Each lobe is divided into smaller sections called lobules that produce milk when a woman is breast feeding. Ducts are the tubes that connect the lobes and lobules and can carry milk to the nipple. The rest of the breast is made up mostly of fat tissue.

What is breast cancer?
Breast cancer occurs when cells in the breast grow out of control. A group of abnormal cells together can form a malignant (cancerous) tumor.

There are two main types of breast cancer.  One type is called invasive lobular carcinoma, which starts in the lobes. Another type is called invasive ductal carcinoma, which starts in the ducts. There is also a condition called carcinoma in situ, which means that there are abnormal cells that have not spread.

Most abnormal growths in the breast are benign (not cancerous). Benign growths (also called benign tumors) do not spread outside the breast and are not life-threatening. Only a doctor can do the correct tests to find out if a tumor is cancer or not. 

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How common is breast cancer?
Breast cancer is the most common cancer among women in the US, and it's more common among older women. About 178,000 American women are diagnosed with the disease each year. About 2,000 American men are diagnosed with the disease each year. To compare this with other cancers, click here.

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Who is at risk of getting breast cancer?
Anyone can get breast cancer (including men), but it usually strikes women over age 60. Women who have a family history of breast cancer have a higher risk.

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How do you lower your risk of breast cancer?
  • Cut down on the amount of alcohol you drink.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Stay physically active

Certain drugs (like tamoxifen) may also lower the risk of breast cancer, but only for women who are at high risk of the disease. Researchers are still studying the long-term effects of these medications.

Click here for a list of things that affect breast cancer risk.


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Who should get breast cancer screening tests?
All women over the age of 20 should get screened regularly for breast cancer. But the right screening tests mainly depend on a woman's age. Use the information below to find out which tests you should get.

If you are between ages 20 and 39:
Get a clinical breast exam every 1 - 3 years.

If you age 40 or older
Get a mammogram and clinical breast exam every year.

Be sure to discuss your risk of breast cancer with a doctor. If your risk is high, you may need to have mammograms more often and at an earlier age.

Click here for more information on breast cancer screening.

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What are the symptoms of breast cancer?
Breast cancer may have no symptoms in the early stages. That’s why screening is very important: to find abnormal changes before they develop and spread.

As the cancer grows, the symptoms may include:

  • A lump or mass in the breast or the under arm area
  • A change in breast size, shape or color
  • A discharge from the nipple
  • A change in the feel of the skin covering the breast (the skin could become dimpled, puckered or scaly)
These symptoms can also be caused by less serious conditions. Only a doctor can do the right tests to know for sure. If you have any of these symptoms, talk to your doctor immediately.


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For more information on breast cancer, visit these web sites: Back to top