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MSNBC’s breast cancer FAQs

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According to the National Cancer Institute, the chance that an American woman in the general population will develop breast cancer by age 40 is one in 217; by age 45, that risk increases to one in 93. But if a woman lives to be 85, she has a one in eight chance of getting the cancer. Here are the facts:

How many women have breast cancer?

Breast cancer is the most common cancer among women, excluding skin cancers.

The American Cancer Society estimates that in 2001, some 192,200 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed among women in the United States. An estimated 1,500 cases will occur in men.

What is the death rate?

Breast cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer death in women, exceeded only by lung cancer. It is the leading cause of cancer deaths among women 40 to 55.

In 2001, 40,600 Americans are expected to die from breast cancer (40,200 women, 400 men).

The most recent data indicate that death rates have begun to decline in white women, and, for the first time, are also declining in younger black women. These decreases are attributed to earlier detection and improved treatment of breast cancer.

What is cancer?

Cancer is a group of more than 100 different diseases characterized by uncontrolled growth and spread of abnormal cells. If the spread is not controlled, it can result in death.

Normally, cells divide to produce more cells only when the body needs them. If cells divide when new ones are not needed, they form a mass of excess tissue, called a tumor. Tumors can be benign (not cancer) or malignant (cancer). The cells in malignant tumors can invade and damage nearby tissues and organs. Cancer cells can also break away from a malignant tumor and travel through the bloodstream or the lymphatic system to form new tumors in other parts of the body.

What is breast cancer?

Breast cancer is a malignant tumor that has developed from cells at that site. The disease occurs most frequently in women, and rarely in men.

The breasts are glands protruding from the upper front chest wall that produce and release milk in women in association with pregnancy. They are composed of milk-secreting glands, ducts and fatty, connective and lymphatic tissue.

There are many types of breast tumors. Most breast tumors are benign. Benign breast tumors such as fibroadenomas or papillomas do not spread outside of the breast and are not life-threatening. Other tumors are malignant, which is another word for cancerous, and may become life-threatening.

What are the risk factors?

Being a woman is the primary risk factor. The following are other key risk factors:

  • Aging
  • Personal history of breast cancer
  • Family history of breast cancer
  • Previous breast biopsy
  • Onset of menstruation before age 12
  • No children or first child after age 30
  • Menopause after age 50
  • Alcohol abuse
  • Being overweight and/or following a high-fat diet

What are the warning signs?

A lump or thickening in the breast or bleeding from the nipple. Remember, these are signs you could have cancer; only your doctor can make a diagnosis.

How is breast cancer treated?

Breast cancer is treated with surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, hormone therapy and immunotherapy. The doctor may use one method or a combination of methods. The choice of treatment depends on the type and location of the cancer, whether the disease has spread, the patient’s age and general health, and other factors.

Many cancer patients take part in clinical trials (research studies) testing new treatment methods. Such studies are designed to improve cancer treatment.

Information compiled from The Cancer Information Service, a program of the National Cancer Institute, and the American Cancer Society.