Breast cancer is a type of cancer that forms in the cells of the breast, most often in the ducts carrying milk to the nipple or the glands that produce milk. Breast cancer is the most common cancer among women and those assigned females at birth (AFABs), but it’s important to remember that breast cancer can affect anyone.
Your copilots in care on your breast cancer journey
An estimated 1 in 8 women and AFABs are diagnosed with breast cancer during their lifetime. Learning that you're part of that statistic can bring on a wave of emotions, so we're here to help you navigate these waters and guide you toward better health.
One of the best things you can do for your breast health is to take early action. Mammograms are the gold standard for detecting and diagnosing any suspicious breast lumps. That's why they're a staple annual exam for women and AFABs starting at age 40.
And because breast cancer can be passed down in families, you may want to learn if you have any gene mutations — like BRCA1 and BRCA2 — linked to breast cancer by pursuing genetic testing.
So whether you have questions about your treatment, want to join a support group or simply need someone to talk to, know that your care team will be there for you every step of the way.
Our team provides the full suite of services for all types of breast conditions, including:
Breast cancer symptoms
Early detection is the name of the game with breast cancer. If you notice any of the following symptoms, talk to your doctor as soon as you can:
- Bleeding or crusting of the nipple
- Localized breast pain
- New breast mass
- Nipple discharge that may be clear or bloody
- Skin changes of the breast (thickening, scaling, redness, ulceration)
- Skin dimpling
- Swelling in a part of or the entire breast
- Swollen lymph nodes under the arm
Finding breast abnormalities early on helps make cancer treatments more effective. That's why we offer the full range of diagnostic options here at Tufts Medicine.
Clinical breast exams + mammograms
Mammograms are the gold standard for detecting lumps, or tumors, in your breast. But you don't have to wait until you're 40 (or younger, depending on your situation) to take proactive steps for your breast health. Clinical breast exams are powerful tools to check for tumors, especially when coupled with mammograms.
Your primary care doctor may conduct a clinical breast exam as part of a regular check-up or if you've started experiencing breast cancer symptoms. They'll check for any changes in the size, shape or contour of the breast by gently touching the breast and underarm area for lumps or other abnormalities.
If something unusual shows up in the breast exam or mammogram, we'll remove a small piece of tissue for analysis. This procedure is called a biopsy. A biopsy is usually performed by a surgeon or radiologist using a needle and local anesthesia.
Once we've confirmed that breast cancer is present in your body, it's important to understand if the cancer is spreading and, if so, how far. This process, called staging, helps us design the most effective possible care plan for you.
Screenings + genetic testing for breast cancer
It's a recommended and safe practice for all people age 40 or older to schedule an annual mammogram, which is a type of X-ray that detects breast tumors. We encourage you to talk with your doctor about earlier screenings if you have certain risk factors or a family history of breast cancer.
We offer risk assessments and genetic testing to help you manage your breast health or even get one step ahead of it. Because breast cancer can be passed down through family members, we'll look for mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes to determine your risk for developing breast cancer.
And if you do test positive for hereditary breast cancer syndrome, there are preventive treatments we can explore with you, like medications or surgery.
When you’re under our care, we treat every part of you — physically, mentally and emotionally. Your care team may include the following:
- Board-certified oncologists
- Board-certified plastic surgeons
- Board-certified radiologists specializing in breast imaging
- Board-certified surgeons
- Genetic counselors
- Nurse navigators
- Physical therapists certified in lymphedema management
- Social workers
- Support groups
Together, our brightest minds in medicine will explore whether surgery, interventional radiology, chemotherapy or even clinical trials are the best approaches for your unique care plan.
Breast surgery is usually the first step in treating breast cancer. Whenever possible, we’ll use minimally invasive surgical techniques to minimize discomfort and recovery time.
We also specialize in oncoplastic breast surgery — a “2-for-1” procedure where we remove a tumor and reconstruct the breast at the same time. Only 20 or so physicians in the country perform oncoplastic breast surgery.
The good news is that based on our patient history, 90% of patients are cancer-free at the margins following oncoplastic surgery.
Interventional radiology is the practice of using the latest image-guided technologies to perform minimally-invasive surgeries. We turn to interventional radiology for breast conservation and regional radiation along with other techniques such as brachytherapy and hyperthermia.
Meanwhile, our radiologists oversee all aspects of breast-conserving radiation therapy or post-mastectomy treatment.
Your care team may recommend chemotherapy, hormone therapy or precision-targeted biologic therapies before or after surgery. Our experts use a wide range of medications, including advanced drugs that target specific breast cancer cells.
The average risk for women and AFABs developing breast cancer is about 12%, or a 1 in 8 chance.
About 1 in 1,000 men and AMABs will develop breast cancer during their lifetime.
A few of the best things you can do for your breast health is:
- Staying up-to-date on your annual mammograms (once you've reached an eligible age)
- Giving yourself a regular breast self-exam.
If you notice anything unusual about your breasts, contact your medical provider right away.
Breast cancer risk increases as you age. like many other cancers, increases in frequency with age. Approximately 85% of cases occur in AFABs age 50 or older.
Other risk factors include:
- A genetic mutation in genes such as BRCA1 or BRCA2 or other genes such as p53 or PTEN
- A history of increased breast density on mammography
- Family history of breast or ovarian cancer
- Personal history of breast cancer (people who have had breast cancer once are at increased risk of developing it a second time)
- Prolonged estrogen exposure
- Radiation to the chest, particularly during teenage years and early adulthood
- Women and AFABs who have taken hormone replacement therapy, especially a combination of an estrogen and progestagen for more than 2–3 years
- Women and AFABs who have never given birth and women who have their first child after the age of 30
- Women and AFABs who have undergone breast biopsy, primarily those with atypical hyperplasia
Women of higher socioeconomic status may be more likely to develop breast cancer. In addition, smoking appears to increase risk of breast cancer.
The two main categories for breast cancer are non-invasive and invasive.
One type of non-invasive breast cancer is ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS). DCIS is limited to the milk ducts, the tubes that carry milk through the breast. DCIS rarely spreads to other parts of the body. Lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS) is usually limited to the lobules, which are the milk-producing glands inside the breast.
Invasive breast cancer refers to cancer that has spread beyond the milk ducts or lobules, which means it has the potential to spread to lymph nodes or other parts of the body. Invasive breast cancer typically comes in one of two forms: invasive ductal cancer and invasive lobular cancer.
Awards + accreditations
Our breast health and cancer care programs have been recognized for quality and safety. So when it comes to making one of the most important decisions of your life, you can be sure you’re in the best of hands.