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Top questions about breast cancer

What you should know about breast cancer

Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer in American women, with the exception of skin cancer. It accounts for one in three cancers diagnosed in women. Men can develop breast cancer as well, though it is much less common than in women. If you or a loved one is diagnosed with breast cancer, one of the first things you can do is educate yourself about the disease and available treatment options.

What is breast cancer?

Breast cancer is a common term for a cancerous (malignant) tumor that starts in the cells that line the ducts and/or lobes of the breast. Breast cancer is not one disease; rather it is several diseases that behave differently.

What causes breast cancer?

Breast cancer’s causes are not exactly clear. Studies have identified numerous risk factors for breast cancer in women, including hormonal, lifestyle and environmental factors that may increase the risk of the disease. Other factors include:

  • Increasing age
  • Personal history of breast cancer
  • Early menstruation
  • Late menopause
  • A first pregnancy after age 30 or no prior pregnancies
  • Use of oral contraceptives
  • Family history of breast cancer
  • Presence of certain inherited genetic changes
  • History of radiation therapy to the chest
  • Long-term use of combined hormone therapy
  • Alcohol use
  • Obesity after menopause.

It's unclear why some people who have no risk factors develop cancer, while others with risk factors never do.

When should I begin screening for breast cancer?

The American Cancer Society (ACS) recommends the following early-detection screenings for women at average risk for breast cancer:

  • Optional monthly breast self-exams for women starting in their 20s
  • Optional mammograms beginning at age 40
  • Annual mammograms for women ages 45 to 54
  • Mammograms every two years for women 55 and older, unless they choose to stick with yearly screenings
  • MRIs and mammograms for some women at high risk of breast cancer

The ACS also recommends that women know the benefits and potential harms associated with breast cancer screening as well as how their breasts normally look and feel and report any changes to their doctor right away.

What type of doctor should I see if I think I have breast cancer?

If you think you have breast cancer, you should talk to your primary care physician or OB/GYN. A number of doctors may play a role in your breast cancer treatment. The following is a list of doctors who may be involved in your care:

Medical oncologist: A physician who has special training in diagnosing and treating cancer using chemotherapy, hormonal therapy and targeted therapy 

Surgical oncologist: A doctor who uses surgery to diagnose, stage and treat cancer and manage certain cancer-related symptoms, and who may perform biopsies and other surgical procedures such as removing a lump or a breast

Radiation oncologist: A physician trained in cancer treatment using radiation to shrink tumors and destroy cancer cells

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