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Facts About Breast Cancer

Back to 2001 Curriculum. 

  • This year, approximately 182,800 women in the United States will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer, and approximately 40,800 women will die from breast cancer.

  • Over 75% of women who are diagnosed with breast cancer are age 50 or older.

  • Men can get breast cancer, although this is very rare. For every man who is diagnosed, over 100 women are found to have breast cancer.

  • About 5-10% of all breast cancers are inherited. Children can inherit an altered breast cancer susceptibility gene from either their mother or father.

  • Most women—about 90%—who get breast cancer do not have a sister or mother who has breast cancer.

  • Excluding skin cancer, breast cancer is the most common cancer in women.

  • Although the lifetime risk of breast cancer is 1 in 8, the chances of getting breast cancer by age 50 are 1 in 54. By age 60 the chances are 1 in 23.

  • In the 1990s, the breast cancer death rate declined by the largest amount in over 65 years.

  • Heart disease, not breast cancer, is the leading killer of women.

  • Women under the age of 40 account for only 5% of breast cancer cases.

  • Nearly 97% of women who are diagnosed with breast cancer at an early stage survive for more than 5 years.


  • The most common sign of breast cancer is a new lump or mass. A mass that is painless, hard, and has irregular edges is more likely to be cancerous, but some rare cancers are tender, soft, and rounded.

  • A generalized swelling of part of a breast (even if no distinct lump is felt).

  • Breast skin irritation or dimpling.

  • Nipple pain or retraction (turning inward), redness or scaliness of the nipple or breast skin.

  • Discharge other than breast milk.

  • Many of these symptoms can also be due to benign breast conditions but medical examinations and tests may be the only way to determine their cause.

Risk Factors

  • All women are at risk for breast cancer; the biggest risk factors are being a woman and aging.

  • Personal or family history of breast cancer.

  • History of noncancerous breast disease (diagnosed as proliferative breast disease).

  • Having early onset of menstrual periods or late menopause.

  • Recent use of oral contraceptives or postmenopausal estrogens.

  • Never having children or having first child after age 30.

  • Chest radiation therapy as a child or young adult.

  • Consuming two or more alcoholic drinks a day.

  • Obesity, especially after menopause.

Early Detection

  • Early diagnosis is the key to surviving breast cancer.

  • Mammography can prevent thousands of breast cancer deaths each year.

  • Regular screening mammograms are the best way to detect breast cancer early, when it is easiest to treat.

  • All women aged 40 and over should get a mammogram and clinical breast exam every year, and perform monthly breast self-examination. Women at particularly high risk should talk with their doctors about starting screening earlier. Women aged 20-39 should have a clinical breast exam every three years and should perform monthly breast self-examination.

  • When having a mammogram, women should ask their doctor when they can expect to receive the results. New regulations require mammography facilities to send women their results within 30 days.

  • Older women are at highest risk for breast cancer, yet they are the least likely to get mammograms.

  • The American Cancer Society can tell women where they can get a mammogram. Call 1-800-ACS-2345.

  • By law, all mammography facilities must be certified by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (unless it is a Veterans Health Administration facility). This means they must meet standards for the equipment used, people who work there, and records that are kept.

  • Mammography can detect cancers several years before a woman or her health care provider can feel a lump.

  • Breast abnormalities are discovered in one of three ways: by a woman herself, by her health care provider during a physical exam, or by a mammogram. Many breast cancers are found by the woman herself, but the smallest cancers are found by mammograms.

  • Low-cost and free mammograms are available to low-income women through their local or state health department.

  • Annual mammograms are covered by Medicare and Medicaid.

  • Most breast lumps are not cancer.


  • Cancer treatment varies widely depending on the type and stage of cancer, as well as the age and medical history of the patient. Treatment may include surgery (i.e., lumpectomy or mastectomy), radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and hormone therapy.

  • Most women diagnosed with breast cancer today can be treated in a way that allows them to keep their breasts (i.e., lumpectomy).


  • Breast cancer cannot be prevented.

  • Physical activity, good nutrition, and certain drugs may lower a woman's risk of getting the disease.

  • It has not been proven that a low-fat diet will prevent breast cancer, but it is known that a low-fat diet decreases the risk of colon cancer, heart disease, and many other diseases.

  • Women who have two or more alcoholic drinks a day have a greater risk of getting breast cancer than women who don't drink.

*Information gathered from the American Cancer Society.