Breast Cancer

Older, blonde female patient wearing hospital gown is being screened for cancer. She has her arm on the screening machine

Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer among women in South Carolina. It's the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths among women in the state.

Why is it important to catch breast cancer as early as possible?

  • Women with breast cancer diagnosed at the earliest stage (Stage 1), before the cancer has had time to spread to lymph nodes or other locations outside the breast, have a 99% chance of surviving at least 5 years.
  • Women who are diagnosed with breast cancer after the cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes (Stages 2 and 3), have an 84% chance of surviving at least 5 years.
  • Once breast cancer has spread to distant lymph nodes or organs throughout the body
  • (Stage 4), the 5-year survival rate falls to 23%.

Are survival rates improving?

Thanks in part to breast cancer screening/early detection, long-term survival rates for breast cancer have improved dramatically over the last several decades.

  • In the 1960s, 63 out of 100 women diagnosed with breast cancer were still living 5 years following their diagnosis of breast cancer.
  • Today, 90 out of 100 women diagnosed with breast cancer are still living 5 years following diagnosis.
  • In addition, today 82 out of 100 women diagnosed with breast cancer are living at least 10 years following diagnosis, and 77 out of 100 are living at least 15 years.

What symptoms should I look for?

Different people have different symptoms of breast cancer. Some people do not have symptoms at all. Some warning signs of breast cancer are—

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

Keep in mind that these symptoms can happen with other conditions that are not cancer.

So if you find a lump, skin change, or any other breast changes or unusual discharge from your nipple(s), see your health care provider right away. Do not wait. Do monthly breast self-exams. (If you don't know how, ask your health care provider to teach you.) See your health care provider each year for a breast exam. And if you are 40 or older, have a mammogram once a year.

(If you are a woman age 30 to 64 and need assistance, you may qualify for free breast and cervical cancer screenings through DHEC's Best Chance Network . Check to see if you qualify.)

Breast Cancer Screening

  • Women ages 40 to 44 should have the choice to start annual breast cancer screening with mammograms (x-rays of the breast) if they wish to do so.
  • Women age 45 to 54 should get mammograms every year.
  • Women 55 and older should switch to mammograms every 2 years, or can continue yearly screening.
  • Screening should continue as long as a woman is in good health and is expected to live 10 more years or longer.
  • All women should be familiar with the known benefits, limitations, and potential harms linked to breast cancer screening.

Women should also know how their breasts normally look and feel and report any breast changes to a health care provider right away.

Some women - because of their family history, a genetic tendency, or certain other factors - should be screened with MRIs along with mammograms. (The number of women who fall into this category is very small.) Talk with a health care provider about your risk for breast cancer and the best screening plan for you.

Can men get breast cancer?

Yes, men can get breast cancer. But breast cancer is about 100 times more common in women than in men. In men, breast cancer can happen at any age, but is most common in men who are between 60 and 70 years old. Medical treatment options are the same for both women and men who get breast cancer.

Risk Factors You Can Not Change

  • Getting older. The risk for breast cancer increases with age. Most breast cancers are diagnosed after age 50.
  • Genetic mutations. Women who have inherited changes (mutations) to certain genes, such as BRCA1 and BRCA2, are at higher risk of breast and ovarian cancer.
  • Reproductive history. Starting menstrual periods before age 12 and starting menopause after age 55 expose women to hormones longer, raising their risk of getting breast cancer.
  • Having dense breasts. Dense breasts have more connective tissue than fatty tissue, which can sometimes make it hard to see tumors on a mammogram. Women with dense breasts are more likely to get breast cancer.
  • Personal history of breast cancer or certain non-cancerous breast diseases. Women who have had breast cancer are more likely to get breast cancer a second time. Some non-cancerous breast diseases such as atypical hyperplasia or lobular carcinoma in situ are associated with a higher risk of getting breast cancer.
  • Family history of breast or ovarian cancer. A woman’s risk for breast cancer is higher if she has a mother, sister, or daughter (first-degree relative) or multiple family members on either her mother’s or father’s side of the family who have had breast or ovarian cancer. Having a first-degree male relative with breast cancer also raises a woman’s risk.
  • Previous treatment using radiation therapy. Women who had radiation therapy to the chest or breasts (for instance, treatment of Hodgkin’s lymphoma) before age 30 have a higher risk of getting breast cancer later in life.
  • Exposure to the drug diethylstilbestrol (DES). DES was given to some pregnant women in the United States between 1940 and 1971 to prevent miscarriage. Women who took DES, or whose mothers took DES while pregnant with them, have a higher risk of getting breast cancer.

Risk Factors You Can Change

  • Not being physically active. Women who are not physically active have a higher risk of getting breast cancer.
  • Being overweight or having obesity after menopause. Older women who are overweight or have obesity have a higher risk of getting breast cancer than those at a healthy weight.
  • Taking hormones. Some forms of hormone replacement therapy (those that include both estrogen and progesterone) taken during menopause can raise risk for breast cancer when taken for more than five years. Certain oral contraceptives (birth control pills) also have been found to raise breast cancer risk.
  • Reproductive history. Having the first pregnancy after age 30, not breastfeeding, and never having a full-term pregnancy can raise breast cancer risk.
  • Drinking alcohol. Studies show that a woman's risk for breast cancer increases with the more alcohol she drinks.

Research suggests that other factors such as smoking, being exposed to chemicals that can cause cancer, and changes in other hormones due to night shift working also may increase breast cancer risk.

Who is at High Risk for Breast Cancer?

If you have a strong family history of breast cancer or inherited changes in your BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, you may have a high risk of getting breast cancer. You may also have a high risk for ovarian cancer.

Talk to your doctor about ways to reduce your risk, such as medicines that block or decrease estrogen in your body, or surgery.

What can health care providers and hospitals do?

  • Provide meeting space for cancer support groups.
  • Encourage participation in research, including clinical trials.
  • Encourage women to assist with the design and participate in studies of women who have had early-stage cancer and have finished therapy.
  • Encourage eligible women to get mammograms at recommended intervals.
  • Assure that your cancer cases are reported to your hospital cancer registry or The South Carolina Central Cancer Registry .