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Breast Cancer

Radiation Therapy for Breast Cancer, Symptoms and Causes

Facts About Breast Cancer Breast-conserving Surgery
Risk Factors for Breast Cancer External Beam Radiation Therapy
Diagnosing Breast Cancer Partial Breast Irradiation
Types of Breast Cancer  

Facts About Breast Cancer

An estimated 184,450 people in the United States will be diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008. Breast cancer accounts for 26% of new cancers among women and will cause approximately 40,500 deaths in 2008, second only to lung cancer. Despite these statistics, deaths from breast cancer have been declining, due to early detection and improvements in treatment.

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Risk Factors for Breast Cancer

A woman in the United States has a one in eight chance of developing breast cancer in her lifetime. Although we cannot tell her exactly what caused her cancer, there are many known risk factors. Having one of more of these risk factors does not mean that she will definitely develop breast cancer, but her chances will be greater than someone without those risk factors. Other than gender and age, about half of breast cancer patients have no other known risk factors.

  • Gender: Women are far more likely to develop breast cancer than men. For every 100 females diagnosed, there is one male diagnosed with breast cancer.
  • Age: The incidence of breast cancer increases with age.
  • Hormonal factors: Greater exposure to estrogen is associated with an increased risk for developing breast cancer. Therefore, having menstrual periods at an early age or menopause late in life are risk factors. Pregnancy and lactation decrease the risk for developing breast cancer.
  • Diet: Increased fat and alcohol consumption has been found to be associated with an increased risk.

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Diagnosing Breast Cancer

More and more breast cancers are being diagnosed at an early stage with screening mammography. Many of these cancers cannot be felt and are painless. Signs of breast cancer may include a mass that can be felt, skin thickening or discoloration, nipple discharge and swollen glands under the arm. A physician should be notified of these findings without delay.

Making a diagnosis of breast cancer requires a biopsy. A breast surgeon will determine the optimal method of performing a biopsy.

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Types of Breast Cancer

The breast contains ducts which branch into smaller lobules. The most common type of breast cancer originates in the ducts and is called infiltrating or invasive ductal carcinoma. If the cancer originates in the lobules, then it is called lobular carcinoma. Pre-cancerous conditions are called ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) or lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS).

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Breast-conserving Surgery

Early stage breast cancer can be treated by a mastectomy or a lumpectomy followed by radiation therapy, commonly referred to as breast conservation. Studies have shown that these options are equivalent. Small tumors, usually 5cm or less, can often be managed with breast-conserving surgery, even if there are lymph nodes involved. A breast surgeon and radiation oncologist will determine whether breast conservation is appropriate.

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External Beam Radiation Therapy

External Beam Radiation therapy uses high energy X-rays to kill cancer cells. The treatment is similar to having an X-ray, lasting only minutes and is painless. The radiation is directed to the whole breast or chest wall after a mastectomy, and may include some lymph node areas. Common side effects include a skin reaction like a sunburn and fatigue. A typical treatment course is given Monday through Friday and may last three to seven weeks. The Radiation Oncologist will work with you to develop an optimal treatment plan.

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Partial Breast Irradiation

Breast conservation usually involves irradiating the entire breast. However, it may be acceptable to treat just the area near the tumor. Since the area is smaller than the whole breast, the treatment may be given in a short period of time, usually one week. This treatment is referred to as accelerated partial breast irradiation and is under investigation. These treatments are offered on and off protocol to highly selected patients. You may speak with your radiation oncologist for more information.

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