Breast Cancer

Image of four smiling women raising their arms in celebration.

What is Breast Cancer?

The breasts overlie the chest muscles and in women contain specialized glands that produce milk. These glands are located in 12 to 20 lobes throughout the breast. The lobes create and secrete milk into a series of interconnected ducts which run throughout the breast and join together at the nipple. Breast cancer is the most common non-skin cancer among women in the United States and about 1 in 8 U.S. women will develop invasive breast cancer of the course of their lifetime.

Breast cancer is caused by an uncontrolled growth of breast cells. The type of breast cancer depends on the type of cell that develops into cancer. Invasive ductal carcinoma is the most common breast cancer and arises from ductal cells which line the interconnective ducts.

Illustration showing a cross section and anatomy of a woman's chest

Preventing Breast Cancer:

Maintaining a healthy diet and level of physical activity can reduce the risk of developing many types of cancers. It also improves your chances of survival if you do get cancer. Gender, age and family history are some risk factors associated with the development of breast cancer. Risk can be reduced however, by preventing overexposure to estrogen, the primary female sex hormone.

Here are some ways to reduce the risk of developing breast cancer:

  • Physical activity: Women who are physically active have a reduced risk.
  • Maintain a healthy weight: A healthy weight following menopause reduces risk.
  • Hormones: Some oral contraceptives (birth control pills) and hormone replacement therapies can increase risk. If you take either of these, ask your doctor about the risk.
  • Reproductive factors: Breastfeeding has shown to reduce risk. In addition, a first pregnancy before age 30 and full-term pregnancy have both been shown to reduce risk.
  • Alcohol: Limiting drinks to no more than one per day can reduce risk.
  • Other factors such as smoking and exposure to certain chemicals might increase risk as well.
  • An important exception to the aforementioned risk factors is breast cancer arising from genetic mutations. If you have a strong family history of cancer or a known genetic mutation, consult your doctor. Genetic mutations have specific recommendations for risk reduction, screening and treatment

Breast Cancer Screening

Yearly screening is recommended, beginning at age 40-50 years. Breast cancer screening detects cancer early, before signs or symptoms develop, which leads to improved outcomes. Common symptoms of breast cancer include a new lump in the breast or in axilla (armpit), thickening or swelling of the breast, skin changes of the breast or nipple, breast pain and nipple discharge.

As part of a screening program, women will get a clinical exam in conjunction with a radiographic assessment such as mammogram. Breast self-exams also are an important tool to detect cancer. Be familiar with the look and feel of your breasts and you can more easily identify symptoms like pain, lumps or changes in size or skin.

Breast Cancer Treatment

Breast cancer treatment is more effective when it’s detected early, allowing more options with less therapy. Once a suspicious area is discovered and a biopsy confirms cancer, additional studies might be performed to direct final treatment recommendations.

Depending on the stage and type of breast cancer, there are three main treatments:

  • Surgery: To remove cancer with an operation.
  • Chemotherapy: Medicines to shrink or kill cancer cells given by medical oncologists.
  • Radiation: Targeted X-rays kill cancer cells, given by radiation oncologists.

Where you get treated for breast cancer matters. It’s important to receive the most up-to-date therapy. For example, we are the first in the region to utilize surface guided radiation therapy (SGRT) to reduce harmful effects of radiation to the heart in women being treated for breast cancer.

At our MUSC Health Florence Medical Center, breast cancers are discussed at a multidisciplinary tumor conference where all involved physicians (medical and radiation oncologist, hematologist, surgeon, radiologist and pathologist) work together. The multidisciplinary team carefully considers each individual case and makes a group decision to maximize each patient outcome.

Breast Cancer Outcomes

Recent advances in prevention, detection and treatment have significantly improved outcomes for women diagnosed with breast cancer. Breast cancer remains the most commonly diagnosed cancer and the second-most lethal cancer among women (after lung cancer).