Clinical guidance

Breast Cancer Q&A

Published October 10, 2023

woman in robe doing a breast exam

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women in the United States, except for skin cancer. The good news is there are steps you can take to prevent and detect breast cancer.

What is breast cancer?

Breast cancer is a collection of abnormal cells in the breast that grow and invade healthy tissue. It can occur in one or both breasts and can metastasize, or spread, to other parts of the body.

What causes breast cancer?

We don’t know for sure, but you’re at higher risk for it if you:

  • Are a woman
  • Are Caucasian
  • Are 55 years or older
  • Have a family history of breast or ovarian cancer
  • Have certain genetic mutations
  • Had your first menstrual cycle before age 12 or went through menopause after age 55
  • Have dense breast tissue

Women also tend to be at higher risk for breast cancer if they:

  • Are sedentary
  • Eat a diet high in saturated fats and lacking in fruits and vegetables
  • Use tobacco products, like cigarettes
  • Regularly drink a lot of alcohol
  • Are at a much higher weight than recommended
  • Take combined hormonal replacement therapy (HRT) for menopause

How can I get tested for breast cancer?

The best way to screen for breast cancer is with a mammogram. Mammograms are x-rays of the breast tissue and can detect cancer and other abnormalities.

Women 40 and older should have screening mammograms every 1 to 2 years.

What else can I do to prevent and detect breast cancer?

Adopt healthier lifestyle habits, like eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, minimizing alcohol consumption, and not smoking.

Talk to your healthcare provider about your personal and family risk factors for breast cancer so they can provide individualized advice.

Self-examine your breasts regularly to identify any changes in your breasts. Let your healthcare provider know if you notice any changes, including:

  • Breast lump, tenderness, or change in breast size or shape
  • Changes of breast or nipple skin texture or appearance
  • Nipple tenderness, discharge, or change in appearance