October is celebrated as Breast Cancer Awareness Month to raise awareness about breast health and promote screening for the disease. Breast cancer is one of the most common cancers in the U.S. and the second leading cause of cancer death in women.

It is a disease in which breast cells grow out of control and turn cancerous. The cancer may begin in milk glands or ducts that carry milk to the nipple and as it progresses, it can spread to lymph nodes and other areas. When the cells spread to other areas, it is called metastatic cancer.

With early detection and treatment, 90% of early-stage breast cancers are curable.

In this "Pink October," an expert shares why screening is crucial for the early detection of breast cancer.

What are the signs to look out for?

Breast self-examinations can help detect cancer signs early. While doing so, it is important to understand what is normal for each person, according to Dr. Eleonora Teplinsky, breast and gynecologic medical oncologist at Valley Health System, New Jersey.

"Guidelines differ on whether people should routinely do self-breast examinations but I do think it is important for people to know their 'normal' so that they can identify any new or concerning symptoms that may develop. I do recommend that people feel their breasts at different times of the month as well," Dr. Teplinsky told Medical Daily.

  • New lump in the breast or armpit - The appearance of a lump is usually the first sign of breast cancer. However, all breast lumps are not cancerous. For example, a noncancerous Fibrocystic condition and cysts can also cause breast lumps.
  • Change in breast size and shape - Watch out for changes in the shape and size of breasts, but know that these changes can also be due to menstruation, childbirth, weight loss or weight gain, and due to certain medications.
  • Nipple discharge, pulling in of the nipple and pain in the nipple area - Discharges that are bloody or clear can be a warning sign.
  • Dimpling of the skin, redness of the skin - Pay close attention to the changes in the skin over the breast and nipple like peeling, scaling, flaking and dimpling.
  • Pain and swelling of the breast - A general pain in any one area of the breast could also be an early sign.

Having any of these symptoms does not automatically mean you have breast cancer. These outward signs need to be discussed with a doctor to determine if there is a need for further evaluation.

Importance of breast cancer screening

Screenings help to detect the cancer even before the symptoms appear. Breast cancer screening techniques such as mammograms – X-rays of the breast – can sometimes detect the cancer up to three years before it can be felt. In women with a high risk of breast cancer, breast MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), along with mammograms, are used for screening.

"Most people with early-stage breast cancer do not have any symptoms and this is one of the reasons why getting screening mammograms is so important. Early detection of breast cancer is critical as it allows breast cancer to be diagnosed at its earliest stages when it is the most treatable and has a better prognosis," Dr. Teplinsky said.

When to start screening?

The average risk of women getting diagnosed with breast cancer is around 13% in the U.S. A mammogram not only helps in the early detection of breast cancer but also identifies certain risk factors, such as breast density. Women with dense breasts are at a higher risk of breast cancer.

"Average-risk women should start getting annual breast cancer screening with mammography at age 40 with consideration of supplemental screening (ultrasound or MRI) for dense breasts. Women should have a breast cancer risk assessment starting at age 25 and periodically thereafter to determine if they are at higher risk and should start getting screening earlier than 40," Dr. Teplinsky explained.

What are the risk factors?

"Breast cancer risk factors include, but are not limited to, age, gender, family history, genetics, history of benign but high-risk breast conditions, lifestyle factors such as physical inactivity, obesity, and alcohol consumption, prior radiation therapy to the chest, dense breasts and reproductive factors," she added.

According to the CDC, a combination of factors raises the risk of breast cancer, which means having a risk factor does not automatically indicate that the person will develop breast cancer, and the impact of different risk factors varies. Many women with several of the risk factors may also not ultimately develop breast cancer.

Although factors such as heredity and genetics cannot be controlled, certain factors such as physical activity, alcohol intake and obesity are controllable.