Breast Health, Breast Cancer Risk Factors and Symptoms,
Breast Cancer Screening, and Resources


Many women believe their chance of getting breast cancer is far greater than it actually is.  Based on a recent survey, Connecticut women think they have a 40% (1 in 2.5) chance of getting breast cancer some time in their life,1 when the true lifetime risk is only around 12% (1 in 8).2 Although breast cancer is the most common cancer diagnosed in women, more women die from lung cancer than from breast cancer.  Moreover, heart disease kills 8 times more women each year than breast cancer.  (See Breast Cancer in Connecticut.)


In most cases, it is not known why some women get breast cancer and others do not.  There are some instances, though, when breast cancer seems to run in families.  A woman with close relatives who have or had breast cancer might benefit from genetic testing.  (See Genetic Testing for Breast and Ovarian Cancers.)


The following section contains information, adapted from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention3 about breast health, risk factors and symptoms of breast cancer, and what you can do to lessen your chances of getting breast cancer or to find it early, when it is most curable. A list of resources is given at the end.

  Boyd DB, Cullen M, Wargo J, et al. 2006. Breast Cancer: What Science Knows, What
      Women Think
. North Haven, CT: Environment and Human Health, Inc.

2      National Cancer Institute, Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results. 2007. Fast Stats: 
      Breast Cancer Lifetime Risk.

3      Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Breast Health Publications.



What is a normal breast?

No breast is typical. What is normal for you may not be normal for another woman. Most women say their breasts feel lumpy or uneven. The way your breasts look and feel can be affected by your menstrual period, having children, losing or gaining weight, and taking certain medications or hormones. Breasts also tend to change as you age.


What are my breasts made of?

A breast has three main parts: glands, ducts, and connective tissue. The glands produce milk. The ducts are passages that carry milk to the nipple. The connective tissue (which consists of fibrous and fatty tissue) connects and holds everything together.


What causes breast lumps?

Most women have some lumpiness in their breasts, and most breast lumps are caused by conditions other than cancer. The most common cause of lumpiness is "fibrocystic" disease, a non-cancerous condition that affects more than half of all women. Common signs of fibrocystic breasts include lumpiness, tenderness, and breast pain.  It is sometimes harder to find breast cancer in fibrocystic breasts, but it does not increase your risk of getting breast cancer. Cysts are another common cause of lumps. They are fluid-filled sacs that can develop inside a breast.  A lump in the breast can be a symptom of cancer, but most of the time, early breast cancer can't be felt. If you have a question about any breast lump, talk to your doctor. He or she can help you find out what is causing the lump.


Are all breast lumps cancer?

Sometimes breast cells become abnormal. These abnormal cells grow, divide, and create new cells that the body does not need and that do not function normally. The extra cells form a mass called a tumor. Some tumors are "benign," or non-cancerous. Benign tumors generally stay where they are, don't spread to other parts of the body, and don't cause major health problems. Other tumors are "malignant," or cancerous. They can spread to other parts of the body and damage healthy cells and organs. Malignant breast tumors can spread to lymph nodes, bone, liver, lungs, brain, and other parts of the body, and can cause death.


What causes breast cancer?

As with many types of cancer, medical experts do not know exactly what causes breast cancer. Almost all breast cancer occurs in women. Men can also get breast cancer, but it is very rare and accounts for less than 1 in 200 breast cancers. Bumping, bruising, pinching, or touching the breast does not cause breast cancer. You cannot "catch" breast cancer from another person. Scientists have found that certain risk factors increase a woman's chances of getting breast cancer. Some known risk factors are discussed below.


What increases my chances of getting breast cancer?

  • Age: The chance of getting breast cancer increases as a woman gets older. Most breast cancers occur in women after menopause. Breast cancer is extremely rare in women in their teens or early 20s and uncommon in women under age 40. In fact, 94 percent of new cases of breast cancer occur in women over the age of 40.  
  • Family history : Your risk of breast cancer increases if your mother, sister, or any close relatives on your mother's or father's side of the family have or had either breast or ovarian cancer. The amount of risk depends on the closeness of the relatives, the total number of relatives, and their age when their cancers were diagnosed. Be sure to tell your doctor if any of your relatives have or had breast or ovarian cancer. If you don't have a family history of breast or ovarian cancer, remember that many other factors affect your risk. Most women who get breast cancer have no family history of the disease. (See Online Family Health History & Risk Assessment Tools and Family Health History.)
  • Personal history of breast cancer: If you had cancer in one breast, your chance of getting cancer in the other breast is greater.
  • Race and ethnicity : Breast cancer is more common in some racial and ethnic groups than in others, though medical experts do not know why. White women are more likely than Hispanic, African American, Asian, or Native American women to get breast cancer. In addition, women with Eastern European (Ashkenazi Jewish) ancestry on either side of their family are at increased risk. African American women are more likely than women of other racial and ethnic groups to die of breast cancer.
  • Not having children : Your chance of getting breast cancer is increased if you never gave birth or if you had your first child later in life (in your 30s or 40s). Women who became pregnant at an early age or and/or had more than one child have a lower risk of breast cancer.
  • Hormone replacement therapy : Your chance of getting breast cancer may be greater if you use certain kinds of hormone replacement therapy (HRT) after menopause. Ask your doctor about the risks and benefits of HRT for you.   

What are the symptoms of breast cancer?

Early breast cancer usually does not have any symptoms. As a breast tumor grows, it can change how the breast looks or feels. Symptoms may include:

  • A new lump in the breast
  • A lump that has changed
  • A change in the size or shape of the breast
  • Pain in the breast or nipple that does not go away
  • Skin anywhere on the breast that is flaky, red, or swollen
  • A nipple that is very tender or that suddenly turns inward
  • Fluid coming from the nipple when not nursing a baby

See your doctor if you notice any of these symptoms. Most breast symptoms are caused by conditions other than cancer, but only your doctor can tell the difference.


How can I lower my chances of getting breast cancer?

Scientists are studying how to prevent breast cancer. Having a healthy lifestyle may help. To protect your overall health and to prevent many kinds of cancer:

  • Eat more fruits and vegetables, 100% juices, foods made with whole grains, and low-fat dairy products.
  • Eat more seafood, chicken, and turkey, and less beef, veal, pork, luncheon meats, and fried foods.
  • Get more active. Try doing something active for at least 10 minutes a day. Walk. Ride a bicycle. Climb stairs. Do yard work or housework.
  • Aim for a healthy weight. If you weigh too much, ask your doctor how to lose weight safely.
  • Do not have more than one alcoholic drink a day.
  • Do not smoke. If you do smoke, quit.
  • See your doctor regularly--even when you don't feel sick. Get the screening tests you need (see below).  

What are screening tests for breast cancer?

Breast cancer screening means checking your breasts for cancer before there are signs or symptoms of the disease. Three main tests are used to screen the breasts for cancer. Ask your doctor which tests are right for you, and when you should have them.

  • Mammogram. A mammogram is an X-ray of the breast. Mammograms are the best way to find breast cancer early, when it is easier to treat and before a lump is big enough to feel or cause symptoms. Mammograms cannot prevent breast cancer, but regular mammograms can lower your risk of dying from breast cancer.   If you are 40 years of age or older, be sure to get a mammogram every year.

  • Clinical breast exam . A clinical breast exam is when a doctor or nurse uses his or her hands to feel for lumps or other changes. 

  • Breast self-exam . A breast self-exam is when you check your own breasts for lumps, changes in size or shape, or any other changes in the breasts or underarm (armpit).  Ask your doctor how to do a breast self-exam. 

Why should I have a mammogram?

Getting regular mammograms is the best way to find breast cancer early, sometimes up to 3 years before you can feel it. When breast cancer is found early, it is easier to treat and cure.


When should I get a mammogram?

Women who have no previous breast symptoms or problems should begin getting mammograms at age 40. After age 40, you should get a mammogram every year. No matter what your age is, see your doctor if you have any breast symptoms or a family history of breast cancer. (See Online Family Health History & Risk Assessment Tools and Family Health History.) You may need to get tested earlier or more frequently.


Where can I get screened for breast cancer?

You can get screened for breast cancer at a clinic, hospital, or doctor's office. Call your doctor's office for help making an appointment for a mammogram. Most health insurance covers breast cancer screening tests.


Where can I get screened for breast cancer if I don't have health insurance?

The Connecticut Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program (CBCCEDP) offers free mammograms to women without health insurance, or whose insurance doesn't cover mammograms. To find out if you qualify, visit the CBCCEDP web site, where you can also find a list of facilities where you can get screened. 





Additional Information about Breast Cancer and Mammograms

Other Helpful Web Sites

   Centers for Disease Control & Prevention

   American Cancer Society

   Susan G. Komen for the Cure Connecticut 

   The Connecticut Breast Cancer Coalition/Foundation

   Breast Cancer Resource Guide for Connecticut    




   Mayo Clinic       


   Breast Cancer: What Science Knows, What Women Think



Related Pages:

      Breast Cancer (home page)      

      Breast Cancer in Connecticut

      Genetic Testing for Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancer

      New England Cancer Genetics Counselors

      Connecticut Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program

      Connecticut Tumor Registry