Skip to Main Content
Breast cancer is when a cancerous tumor occurs inside the breast. One in 8 women will develop breast cancer during her lifetime. Earlier detection, combined with improvements in therapy, has resulted in improved survival rates. In fact, most women who are diagnosed with breast cancer will not die of the disease. Women detect 90% of breast cancers themselves, often through breast self-examination (BSE).
Signs and Symptoms
According to the National Cancer Institute, breast cancer is often accompanied by the following signs and symptoms:
What Causes It?
Over the course of a lifetime, 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer.
Risk factors you cannot change include:
Other risk factors include:
Breast implants, power lines, computer terminals, antiperspirants, and underwire bras do not raise your risk of breast cancer. There is no evidence of a direct link between breast cancer and pesticides.
The National Cancer Institute provides an online tool to help you figure out your risk of breast cancer.
Who's Most At Risk?
People with the following conditions or characteristics are at a higher than average risk for developing breast cancer:
Despite the relevance of risk factors, 70 - 80% of women with breast cancer have none of the known risk factors.
What to Expect at Your Provider's Office
If you have symptoms associated with breast cancer, see your health care provider immediately. Your health care provider can help make a diagnosis and help you determine which treatment or combination of therapies will work best for you.
Your health care provider will do a breast exam and run some laboratory tests, including a study of breast tissue and genetic testing. Imaging techniques may include mammography, ultrasound, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and other methods that help distinguish a cyst from a tumor or make a distinction between cancerous and noncancerous disease. Studies suggest that ultrasound is also effective for differentiating between a cystic (dense) breast mass and a solid (cancerous) tumor. Nuclear imaging techniques like positron emission tomography (PET) and single photon emission tomography (SPECT) may help physicians monitor the growth of tumors. Your doctor may also recommend a surgical biopsy to determine which type of breast cancer you have.
Early detection is important. Annual gynecologic exams play a big role in early detection. Some health authorities recommend mammography every 1 - 2 years for women 40 years of age and older. The United States Committee on Preventive Task Force has suggested that women should not begin screening until age 50 due to false positive rates. However, most health care authorities, including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) strongly disagree. Until there is a consensus, mammography screening should be personalized according to the woman's age, breast density, family history, and other risk factors. Clinical breast exams should be perfromed every 1 - 3 years up to the age of 40 and then annually after that. Most authorities also recommend monthly breast self exams. Regular exercise, maintaining a healthy weight, limiting alcohol intake, and limiting postmenopausal hormone therapy may help prevent breast cancer. Exercise alone reduces the risk of breast cancer by 25 - 30%, and the association seems strongest for those who engage in moderate rather than extreme forms of physical activity. Women who breastfed their babies are also at lower risk of developing breast cancer. Some women who are at high risk of developing breast cancer may choose to take preventive drugs, such as tamoxifen and raloxifene.
Treatment options depend on the size and location of the tumor, results of lab tests, and the stage, or extent, of the disease, along with the patient's age and menopausal status, general health, and breast size.
Your health care provider may prescribe one or more of the following therapies:
Surgical and Other Procedures
Surgery is the most common treatment for breast cancer. The choice of surgeries includes the following:
Complementary and Alternative Therapies
A comprehensive treatment plan for breast cancer may include a range of complementary and alternative therapies. Many naturally oriented doctors believe that nutritional supplementation and herbal medications are important for cancer patients. Other doctors are concerned that certain supplements may interfere with conventional cancer therapies. It is important that patients educate themselves and inform all of their health care providers about the therapies they are using.
Psychotherapy and support groups may help improve quality of life and survival. Make sure all of your doctors know about every therapy you are using, including any supplements you are taking. Work with specialists, keep all of your doctors informed, and know that new research on the risks and benefits of complementary and alternative therapies in cancer medicine are becoming available all the time.
Nutrition and Supplements
Following these nutritional tips may help reduce symptoms:
You may address nutritional deficiencies with the following supplements. Remember to inform all of your health care providers about any natural therapies or supplements you are using.
Herbs are generally a safe way to strengthen and tone the body's systems. As with any therapy, you should talk to your health care provider before starting treatment.
An experienced homeopath considers both your symptoms and constitutional type to create an individualized treatment regimen. Some of the most common homeopathic remedies that may treat symptoms associated with breast cancer are the following:
Acute dose is 3 - 5 pellets of 12X to 30C every 1 - 4 hours until symptoms are relieved.
While acupuncture is not used as a treatment for cancer itself, studies show it can be a valuable therapy for symptoms associated with cancer and the side effects of chemotherapy. In a study of 104 women with breast cancer and nausea from chemotherapy (all of whom were taking antinausea medication), women treated with acupuncture had fewer attacks of nausea than women who received the medication alone.
Other studies suggest that acupuncture can help alleviate fatigue and cognitive dysfunction in breast cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. Acupuncture may also help eliminate pain and hot flashes caused by tamoxifen (a breast cancer medication). One study found that acupuncture markedly improved breathlessness in women with late stages of breast cancer. Acupressure (pressing on rather than needling acupuncture points) has also proved useful in controlling breathlessness and chemotherapy induced nausea and vomiting. Patients can learn how to treat themselves using this technique.
Some acupuncturists prefer to work with breast cancer patients only after they have completed conventional medical cancer therapy. Others will provide acupuncture and herbal therapy during active chemotherapy or radiation. Acupuncturists treat breast cancer patients based on an individualized assessment of the excesses and deficiencies of qi located in various meridians. In many cases of cancer related symptoms, a qi deficiency is usually detected in the spleen or kidney meridians.
Most complications result from surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, or use of the drug tamoxifen, which is effective in preventing recurrence but increases a woman's risk of developing endometrial cancer and blood clots. Other potential complications include:
Women with breast cancer are also at significantly increased risk of progressive cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis. The prognosis for breast cancer patients depends primarily on the stage, or extent, of the disease at the time of the initial diagnosis. With increased early detection rates and improved treatments, the 5 year survival rate is greater than 85%.
Breast cancer patients should see their health care provider every 3 months for 18 months to 4 years, then every 6 months thereafter.
Abeloff M, Wolff A, Weber B, et al. Abeloff's Clinical Oncology. 4th ed. Baltimore, MD: Churchill Livingstone, An Imprint of Elsevier; 2008.
Adelson KB, Loprinzi CL, Hershman DL. Treatment of hot flushes in breast and prostate cancer. Expert Opin Pharmacother. 2005;6(7):1095-106.
Axelrod D, Smith J, Kornreich D, et al. Breast Cancer in Young Women. Journal of the American College of Surgeons. 2008;206(6).
Agrawal A, Fentiman IS. NSAIDs and breast cancer: a possible prevention and treatment strategy. Int J Clin Pract. 2008;62(3):444-9.
Botanicals and the treatment of cancer I. Botanicals, Vitamins, and Dietary Supplements for Improving Survival in Cancer: A Systematic Review of Prospective Clinical Trials: Andrew Vickers. J Soc Integr Oncol. 2005;3(4):139-42.
deVries EF, Rots MG, Hospers GA. Nuclear imaging of hormonal receptor status in breast cancer: a tool for guiding endocrine treatment and drug development. Curr Cancer Drug Targets. 2007;7(6):510-29.
Drugan S, Nicola T, Ilina R, Ursoniu S, Kimar A, Nicola T. Role of multi-component functional foods in the complex treatment of patients with advanced breast cancer. Rev Med Chir Soc Med Nat Iasi. 2007;111(4):877-84.
Ferri. Ferri's Clinical Advisor 2012. 1st ed. Philadelphia, PA: Mosby, An Imprint of Elsevier; 2011.
Ferri. Practical Guide to the Care of the Medical Patient. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Mosby, An Imprint of Elsevier; 2011.
Gardani G, Cerrone R, Biella C, Mancini L, Prosperio E, Casiraghi M, Travisi et al. Effect of acupressure on nausea and vomiting induced by chemotherapy in cancer patients. Minerva Med. 2006;97(5):391-4.
Gomide LB, Matheus JP, Candido dos Reis FJ. Morbidity after breast cancer treatment and physiotherapeutic performance. Int J Clin Pract. 2007;61(6):972-82.
Hanausek M, Walaszek Z, Slaga TJ. Detoxifying cancer causing agents to prevent cancer. Integr Cancer Ther. 2003;2(2):139-44.
Johnson MA. Nutrition and aging -- practical advice for healthy eating. J Am Med Womens Assoc. 2004;59(4):262-9.
Johnson MF, Yang C, Hui KK, Xiao B, Li XS, Rusiewicz A. Acupuncture for chemotherapy-associated cognitive dysfunction: a hypothesis-generating literature review to inform clinical advice. Integr Cancer Ther. 2007;6(1):36-41.
LePetross HT, Whitman GJ, Atchley DP, Yaun Y, Gutierrez-Barrera A, Hortobagyi GN. Effectiveness of alternating mammography and magnetic resonance imaging for screening women with deleterious BRCA mutations at high risk of breast cancer. Cancer. 2011;117(17):3900-7.
Lentz. Comprehensive Gynecology, 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Mosby, An Imprint of Elsevier; 2012.
Lew JQ, Freedman ND, Leitzmann MF, et al. Alcohol and risk of breast cancer by histologic type and hormone receptor status in postmenopausal women: the NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study. Am J Epidemiol. 2009;170(3):308-17.
Maughan K, Lutterbie M, Ham P. Treatment of Breast Cancer. American Family Physician. 2010;81(11).
Nahleh Z, Tabbara IA. Complementary and alternative medicine in breast cancer patients. Palliat Support Care. 2003;1(3):267-73.
Nan S, Anderson KE, Nagamani M, et al. Effect of a soymilk supplement containing isoflavones on urinary F2 isoprostane levels in premenopausal women. Nutr Cancer. 2005;53(1):73-81.
Nedstrand E, Wyon Y, Hammar M, Wijma K. Psychological well-being improves in women with breast cancer after treatment with applied relaxation or electro-acupuncture for vasomotor symptom. J Psychosom Obstet Gynaecol. 2006;27(4):193-9.
Nettleton JA, Greany KA, Thomas W, et al. Short-term soy and probiotic supplementation does not markedly affect concentrations of reproductive hormones in postmenopausal women with and without histories of breast cancer. J Altern Complement Med. 2005;11(6):1067-74.
Newcomb PA, TrenthamDietz A, Hampton JM, Egan KM, Titus-Ernstoff L, Warren Andersen S, et al. Late age at first full term birth is strongly associated with lobular breast cancer. Cancer. 2011;117(9):1946-56.
Price S, Lewith G, Thomas K. Acupuncture care for breast cancer patients during chemotherapy: a feasibility study. Integr Cancer Ther. 2006; 5(4):308-14.
Sarkar FH, Adsule S, Padhye S, Kulkarni S, Li Y. The role of genistein and synthetic derivatives of isoflavone in cancer prevention and therapy. Mini Rev Med Chem. 2006;6(4):401-7.
Schousboe JT, Kerlikowske K, Loh A, Cummings SR. Personalizing mammography by breast density and other risk factors for breast cancer: analysis of health benefits and cost-effectiveness. Ann Intern Med. 2011;155(1):10-20.
Seradour B, Allemand H, Weill A, Ricordeau P. Changes by age in breast cancer incidence, mammography screening and hormone therapy use in France from 2000 to 2006. Bull Cancer. 2009;96(4):E1-6.
Stuebe AM, Willett WC, Xue F, Michels KB. Lactation and incidence of premenopausal breast cancer: a longitudinal study. Arch Intern Mec. 2009;169(15):1364-71.
Swaby RF, Sharma CG, Jordan VC. SERMs for the treatment and prevention of breast cancer. Rev Endocr Metab Disord. 2007;8(3):229-39.
Thiebaut AC, Chajes V, Gerber M, et al. Dietary intakes of omega-6 and omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and the risk of breast cancer. Int J Cancer. 2009;124(4):924-31.
Tice J, Kerlikowske K. Screening and Prevention of Breast Cancer in Primary Care. Primary Care: Clinics in Office Practice. 2009;36(3).
Usui T. Pharmaceutical prospects of phytoestrogens. Endocr J. 2006;53(1):7-20.
Wane D, Lengacher CA. Integrative review of lycopene and breast cancer. Oncol Nurs Forum. 2006;33(1):127-37.
Wood CE, Register TC, Franke AA, et al. Dietary soy isoflavones inhibit estrogen effects in the postmenopausal breast. Cancer Res. 2006;66(2):1241-9.
Yasui Y, Hosokawa M, Sahara T, et al. Bitter gourd seed fatty acid rich in 9c,11t,13t-conjugated linolenic acid induces apoptosis and up-regulates the GADD45, p53 and PPARgamma in human colon cancer Caco-2 cells. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids. 2005;73(2):113-9.
Review Date: 6/4/2012
Reviewed By: Steven D. Ehrlich, NMD, Solutions Acupuncture, a private practice specializing in complementary and alternative medicine, Phoenix, AZ. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network (5/12/2008).
The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.