What To Expect When You Suspect Breast Cancer

What To Expect When You Suspect Breast Cancer

Breast cancer can be frightening, but knowledge is power. If you’ve been vigilant in your personal breast exams and mammograms there may come a time when a lump or suspicious area is found. The first thing that will probably happen is you’ll get another mammogram. This time it’s called a diagnostic mammogram and it will concentrate on the suspicious area. You may also get an ultrasound, with is painless and can often tell the difference quickly between benign and malignant growths.

Depending on the results of the previous tests, the doctors are likely to recommend a biopsy next. A biopsy takes a small piece of the lump for examination under a microscope. It is the best way to make sure if breast cancer is present. The biopsy can take many forms from a surgical procedure to a fine needle, which isn’t much worse than getting a shot. It depends on the type and location of the mass. Your doctor will decide which type of biopsy is best in your case.

Once the biopsy sample is retrieved, a pathologist will study and characterize it. If it is found to be cancerous, it is further classified in various ways to identify its size and strength. The mass will be tested for the presence of special estrogen and progesterone receptors. If present, the cancer can be treated with hormone therapy. Another receptor called the HER-2/neu is also sought. Other therapies are directed and cancers containing this receptor.

At this point the patient is “staged”. The stages of breast cancer are complex, but here is a simplified description:

Stage 0 – Abnormal cells are found in the lining of a gland within the breast. This is indicative of a future cancer, but not representative of present cancer.

Stage I – The earliest stage where the tumor is less than 2 cm across and is contained within the breast.

Stage II – Early stage where the tumor is either: a. Less than 2 cm. across and in both the breast and the lymph nodes under the arm b. between 2 and 5 cm. and may be in breast or breast and lymph nodes under the arm c. More than 5 cm. and only in the breast

Stage III – Advanced breast cancer where: a. The tumor is less than five cm. across, in both breast and lymph nodes under the arm b. The cancer is extensive in the lymph nodes under the arm. c. The cancer is in the lymph nodes or other tissues located near the breastbone. During stage III your doctor will be checking to find signs of metastatic disease. When cancer has “metastasized,’ it has spread from the breast/lymph node areas into other distant organs of the body. These tests will take the form of chest x-rays and CT and bone scans.

Stage IV – Metastatic breast cancer, where the cancer has spread to other organs.

Almost all breast cancer victims will have some type of surgery to remove as much of the cancerous growth as possible. No matter how successful, most will probably undergo a regimen of chemotherapy as well. This kills off any microscopic scraps of the disease that may remain to grow into full-fledged cancer again. Other therapies such as radiotherapy (radiation therapy), hormonal therapy, or biologic therapy may be proscribed.

What To Expect When You Suspect Breast Cancer

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