The National Breast Cancer Foundation, which was founded in 1991, has launched its annual, month-long campaign — Breast Cancer Awareness Month. One goal of the initiative is to raise awareness of the benefits of early detection. Although most women are aware of the disease, many do not perform self-examinations in order to detect the disease in its earliest stage.

These signs should inspire a woman to see a doctor immediately:

  • nipple tenderness or a lump or thickening in or near the breast or underarm area
  • changes in the nipple size or color
  • discharge from the nipple
  • a change in the skin texture or an enlargement of pores in the skin of the breast
  • a lump

These are not the only symptoms of breast cancer, and these are not necessarily symptoms of breast cancer — any one of these changes may signal a benign (non-cancerous) condition. In fact, the majority of breast lumps are not cancer. Still, if you experience a lump or any one of these other symptoms, it is important to visit a doctor for a full examination. Early detection of the disease increases the possibility of survival; when found in the earliest stages, the overwhelming majority of women recover fully.

What is breast cancer?

Breast cancer is a malignant tumor that starts in the cells of the breast.

The female breast contains milk-producing glands as well as ducts that carry the milk from the glands to the nipple. It also contains stroma, the fatty tissue and connective tissue surrounding the ducts, glands, and lymphatic vessels. The lymph system is a network of small veins that carry a clear fluid called lymph, which contains tissue fluid and waste products, as well as immune system cells. The lymphatic system works similarly to the system of arteries and veins, carrying lymph instead of blood around the body. Lymph nodes are small, bean-shaped collections of immune system cells that are connected by lymphatic vessels.

A malignant tumor is a group of cancer cells that can grow into surrounding tissues or metastasize (meaning to spread) to other areas of the body. Breast cancer occurs almost entirely in women, but in rare cases men also can develop the disease. When breast cancer spreads to the lymph nodes, it can then be carried to distant parts of the body. Most of the time, escaped cancer cells may die or be killed after they enter the lymph nodes, but in some cases they are carried to another part of the body and start growing there.

Risks and Recommendations

The American Cancer Society recommends women who are 40 and older to have a screening mammogram every year and to do so for as long as they are in good health. Getting older is one of the main risk factors for breast cancer. Other key factors include a personal history of cancer, family history of the disease, and having a known BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation. Being overweight, drinking more than one alcoholic drink a day, and not getting regular exercise are environmental factors that may contribute to the development of the disease.

Additionally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lists these reproductive factors as risks:

  • being younger when you first had your menstrual period
  • starting menopause at a later age
  • being older at the birth of your first child
  • never giving birth
  • not breastfeeding
  • long-term use of hormone-replacement therapy

In the U.S. in 2009, 211,731 women were diagnosed with breast cancer, and 40,676 women died from the disease, the CDC reports. Except for skin cancer, breast cancer is the most common cancer among American women.