Breast Cancer 101

Breast cancer is a disease in which cells in the breast grow out of control.  There are different kinds of breast cancer, the kind of breast cancer depends on which cells in the breast turn into cancer.

Breast cancer in the most common cancer in women, no matter your race or ethnicity. 

Breast cancer can begin in different parts of the breast.  A breast is made up of three main parts: lobules, ducts, and connective tissue.  The lobules are the glands that produce milk.  The ducts are tubes that carry milk to the nipple.  The connective tissue (which consists of fibrous and fatty tissue) surrounds and holds everything together.  Most breast cancers begin in the ducts of lobules.

Breast cancer can spread outside the breast through blood vessels and lymph vessels.  When breast cancer spreads to other parts of the body, it is said to have metastasized.

What are the symptoms?

As with other cancers, different people have different symptoms and some do not have any symptoms at all.  Some warnings signs of breast cancer are:

  • New lump in the breast of underarm (armpit)
  • Thickening or swelling of part of the breast
  • Irritation or dimpling in of breast skin
  • Redness or flaky skin in the nipple area of the breast
  • Pulling in of the nipple or pain in the nipple area
  • Nipple discharge other than breastmilk, including blood
  • Any change in the size or shape of the breast
  • Pain in any area of the breast

What are the risk factors?

Studies show that your risk of breast cancer is a combination of factors.  The main factors that influence your risk include being a women and getting older.  Most breast cancers are found in women who are 50 years old or older.

Risk factors you cannot change:

  • Getting older
  • Genetic mutations, such as BRCA1 and BRCA2
  • Reproductive history
  • Having dense breasts
  • Personal history of breast cancer or certain non-cancerous breast diseases
  • Family history of breast cancer
  • Previous treatment using radiation therapy


Risk factors you can change:

  • Not being physically active
  • Being overweight or obese after menopause
  • Taking hormones
  • Reproductive history
  • Drinking alcohol

What is Breast Cancer Screening?

Although screening cannot prevent breast cancer, it can help find breast cancer early, when it is easier to treat.  Talk to your doctor about which breast cancer screening test are right for you, and when you should have them.  The United States Preventative Services Task Force recommends that women who are 50 to 74 years old and are at average risk for breast cancer get a mammogram every 2 years.  Women who are 40 to 49 years should talk to their doctor or other health care professional about when to start and how often to get a mammogram. 

The screening options are:

  • Mammogram
  • Breast MRI

Other exams include clinical breast cancer and breast self-awareness.

Breast cancer incidence rates are decreasing in Maine.  This is likely due to the prevalence of screening programs that are provided.  One of those being the Maine Breast and Cervical Health Program, which provides breast and cervical cancer screening and diagnostic services to under-served women.

Breast Cancer