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Breast Cancer: What You Need to Know

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Other than a breast lump, what are other symptoms of breast cancer?
The most common symptom of breast cancer is a new lump or mass. A painless, hard mass that has irregular edges is more likely to be cancerous, but breast cancers can be tender, soft, or rounded.

Other possible signs of breast cancer include swelling of all or part of a breast (even if no distinct lump is felt); skin irritation or dimpling; breast or nipple pain; nipple retraction (turning inward); redness, scaliness, or thickening of the nipple or breast skin; nipple discharge other than breast milk. 

What are the risk factors for breast cancer?
Unlike smoking and lung cancer, there is no single contributing factor to breast cancer. We don’t know what causes breast cancer. Most of the common risk factors found in other diseases, such as female gender, age, family history and a woman’s birth history are things that a woman cannot control. 

But there are some risk factors that a woman can control, such as obesity, exercise, hormone replacement therapy and alcohol intake. When I talk to patients, I try to emphasize what a woman can do for herself to reduce risk.

Who should be screened for breast cancer?
Getting regular screenings such as an annual mammogram and performing monthly self-exams are crucial for all women. This can help catch cancer at an early and very treatable stage. 

The American Cancer Society recommends yearly mammograms starting at age 40 and continuing for as long as a woman is in good health. Clinical breast exams from a physician are recommended about every three years for women in their 20s and 30s and every year for women 40 and over.

Women should know how their breasts normally look and feel and report any breast changes promptly to their health care provider. Breast self-exams are recommended for women starting in their 20s.

What are treatment options for breast cancer?
Radiation therapy in combination with chemotherapy, hormonal therapy and surgery are used to treat breast cancer. Today’s breast cancer radiation techniques are not only effective, they also reduce the risk of side effects and, in some cases, offer much shorter treatment times.

Each of the multiple options you and your doctor can choose from has its own, distinct advantages. Which one is best for you depends on the stage of your cancer, its location and size, the shape and size of your breasts and your own personal preferences. Your overall health is also a consideration when choosing your radiation therapy technique.

There are two basic forms of radiation treatment: External Beam Radiation Therapy (EBRT) and Internal Radiation, also called brachytherapy. Depending on the stage and size of the tumor, both can be effective against breast cancer and both share the same objective: to destroy cancerous cells and help prevent a recurrence while sparing the healthy tissue surrounding the target site. This reduces the risk of side effects.

Written by: Dan Vongtama, MD 

Dr. Dan Vongtama is board certified in radiation oncology and a member of the American Society for Radiation Oncology as well as the American College of Radiation Oncology. He is currently serving on the board of the San Joaquin Medical Society. Throughout his career, Dr. Vongtama has been involved in several radiation therapy research developments and has contributed to professional publications on various diseases including breast, lung and esophageal cancers. Dr. Vongtama has a special interest in the study and treatment of head and neck, prostate, breast and gynecologic cancers and practices at St. Teresa Comprehensive Cancer Center in Stockton, CA.