Beating breast cancer, right by your side
Receiving a diagnosis of breast cancer can be frightening and stressful. The good news is that survival rates for breast cancer are higher than ever — and women and men are beating it every day. No matter where you are in your cancer journey, we’re here for you every step of the way.
What is breast cancer?
Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer for women in the United States after skin cancers. It's so common, in fact, that 1 in 8 women will develop breast cancer at some point in her lifetime.
Breast cancer develops when the healthy, normal cells in the breast begin to "go rogue" by growing and functioning in a different way. These cancerous cells can begin to build up and form a mass called a tumor, which exists as a lump inside your breast.
Breast cancer symptoms
When many people think about early breast cancer symptoms, they tend to think about finding breast lumps. But lumps are only part of the equation. There are more symptoms to watch out for and finding them early can help stop the cancer from spreading to other places in your body.
Early signs of breast cancer can include:
- A lump in your breast or armpit
- Visible changes in your nipple or skin (dimpling, redness, puckering, scaly texture)
- Nipple discharge
- Inverted nipple (when your nipple turns inward)
Having these symptoms does not mean that you have breast cancer. However, it’s important to talk to your doctor to rule out any health issues.
Types of breast cancer
There are several types and sub-types of breast cancer.
Most breast cancer growth is fueled by “receptors” which are found inside cells. In these instances, breast cancers are estrogen receptor positive, progesterone receptor positive and/or human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2) positive:
- About 70% of breast cancers test positive for estrogen and progesterone.
- About 20% of breast cancers include HER2 receptors.
Other types of breast cancers:
- Triple negative breast cancer occurs when a breast cancer can’t be classified as being fueled by receptors. Triple-negative breast cancer can be more aggressive than other breast cancers.
- Male breast cancer is a rare cancer that forms in the breast tissue of men. Although breast cancer is most commonly thought of as a woman's disease, male breast cancer occurs in approximately 1 out of every 1,000 men.
- Inflammatory breast cancer is a rare but aggressive form of breast cancer that occurs as less than 1 percent of all breast cancers.
Breast cancer risk factors
Every year, more than 265,000 women in the United States are diagnosed with breast cancer. The causes of breast cancer can vary. While there are some risk factors that are out of your control, others are linked to lifestyle — which means you can lower your risk:
- Obesity and inactivity: Women who are obese and don’t exercise regularly typically have a higher body mass index (BMI), which puts them at an increased risk of breast cancer.
- Genetics: Gene changes that can be passed from parent to child, including the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation, increase a woman’s risk for developing breast cancer.
- Family history: If a parent, sibling or child has breast cancer, a woman’s odds of developing the disease increases. However, most women who develop breast cancer have no family history of the disease.
- Age: As women age, their likelihood for developing breast cancer increases, with most breast cancer diagnoses occurring after age 50.
- Early menstruation: Women who started their period before age 12 are at a higher risk.
- Dense breast tissue: Women with breast dense tissue have an increased risk.
How is breast cancer diagnosed?
Early detection is the key to identifying cancer when it’s more easily treated and curable, especially with breast cancer.
Our breast cancer specialists are experienced in advanced detection and treating all stages of breast cancer, and have access to leading-edge technology and innovative clinical trials.
Some of the diagnostic tests your doctor may perform to test for breast cancer include:
- Mammogram – Mammograms can detect breast cancer early, giving you the best shot at successful treatment. We offer 3D mammography, the latest advancement in breast imaging, to help detect cancer at the earliest stage. Although the full mammogram screening process takes about 20 to 30 minutes, the compression aspect of it lasts only a few seconds. During a mammogram, each breast will be compressed for a few seconds to get the best pictures. During a 3D mammogram, your technician will take pictures in two projections — above and from the side — to allow for visualization of all of your breast tissue. To do this, your breast will be placed on a lower X-ray plate. An upper plate is then lowered onto the breast to compress it and take the mammogram pictures. After your mammogram, a breast radiologist will review the series of images to see if there are any abnormalities.
- Other imaging tests – For most women, a routine mammogram is the first step in a breast cancer diagnosis. However, your doctor may take images of your breast using other diagnostic testing such as a computed tomography (CT) scan or MRI scan. Imaging tests can be used to discover possible tumors, detect if a tumor has spread and evaluate whether treatment is working.
- Biopsy – During a biopsy, your doctor will remove a small sample of tissue to detect whether it contains cancerous cells (also called malignant cells). The tissue will be examined under a microscope and is removed using a thin needle or during a surgical procedure.
- Blood test – Your doctor may order blood work to look for certain indicators of breast cancer or monitor how your treatment is progressing.
Under the care of hematologist-oncologist Dr. Namita Sharma, Stephanie began chemotherapy at Geisinger Community Medical Center’s new Cancer Center.
Treating breast cancer
At Geisinger, our highly trained team of breast cancer specialists includes surgeons, medical oncologists, radiation oncologists, pathologists, radiologists, breast nurse navigators and support staff who come together to develop a personalized treatment plan around you. Depending on the type, location and stage of your breast cancer, one or more of the following treatments may be recommended.
Surgery is the most common method of treating breast cancer. Our highly experienced breast surgeons use the latest techniques to treat cancer of the breast, including minimally invasive surgery, to offer you the best outcomes and path for healing.
Our surgeons are highly trained and board certified, which means they have passed an optional national exam to demonstrate their medical expertise. Many of our surgeons are also fellowship trained, holding additional training in specific types of cancer surgery.
The two main breast cancer surgeries are:
- Lumpectomy or breast-conserving surgery, in which just the tumor and surrounding normal tissue are removed. This procedure is also called a partial mastectomy.
- Mastectomy, in which the entire breast (or breasts) are removed.
During your surgery, your surgeon will also conduct a biopsy of your lymph nodes to determine whether the tumor has spread.
Additionally, many women opt to undergo breast reconstruction, or restorative breast surgery, either in tandem with their mastectomy or after their postsurgical treatment has been completed.
Chemotherapy is a drug-based treatment designed to slow the growth of or shrink tumors.
Chemotherapy drugs can be given through an IV or taken in a pill form.
The timing of your chemotherapy may be given:
- Before your surgery, to attempt to reduce the size of the tumor
- After your surgery, to destroy any cancer that still remains in the area and reduce the chances of the cancer coming back
- Along with radiation therapy, which together are known as chemoradiation or chemoradiotherapy
Biological drugs work with your body’s immune system to fight the cancer in a targeted way without chemotherapy or radiation.
Estrogen can contribute to breast cancer, particularly after menopause. Chemoprevention drugs can both fight and prevent cancer by stopping the production of estrogen.
Our team includes doctors (called medical oncologists) who specialize in chemotherapy. Additionally, our patients have access to clinical trials that include testing new chemotherapy drugs and combinations of medications that aren’t widely available.
Keeping you comfortable while you undergo your treatment is important to us. Our state-of-the-art clinics, many which have been recently renovated, offer heated seats and individual TVs to help you stay comfortable during treatment.
Radiation oncology uses radiation to control or destroy harmful cancer cells, with tools to treat each unique cancer.
Our board-certified cancer doctors and highly skilled clinical team deliver conventional radiotherapy treatments that include:
- External beam radiation, which uses special technology to send radiation to the tumor from outside the body
- Internal radiation, which targets the tumor using safe levels of radiation inside the body
- Intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT), which uses a 3D image of the tumor to deliver high-precision radiotherapy that fits its exact outline
- Image-guided radiation therapy (IGRT), which is used to treat cancers in areas of the body that move during and between treatments, like the lungs
We use the latest treatment options, including hypofractionated (shorter course) and partial (where only part of the breast is targeted) radiation therapies to treat breast cancer.
The day after her 27th birthday, Alex Thurchak underwent an ultrasound examination after discovering a lump in her breast. Diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer, Alex’s life would quickly become a series of serious decisions she’d never thought she’d have to make in her 20s. She credits her Geisinger nurses and doctors for helping her navigate through several treatment plans, including a mastectomy, egg freezing, chemotherapy, radiation and hormonal therapy. Alex wants all young women to be aware of their bodies and if something doesn’t feel right, always get checked by a professional because it could save your life.
Whether you or a loved one are worried about developing breast cancer, are going through treatment or are trying to stay well after treatment, we’re here for you every step of the way.
Our breast cancer specialists are dedicated to providing innovative treatments and personalized cancer care. We offer:
- Unmatched expertise – Our comprehensive breast health team consists of breast surgeons, specially trained oncologists, surgeons, pathologists, radiologists, psychologists, nurse navigators and genetic counselors. Together, this team of highly trained specialists treats many patients with breast cancer and other cancers each year, and is focused on delivering the most personalized, excellent care that is suited to each patient’s needs.
- National Breast Center accreditation – Our breast programs at Geisinger Medical Center, Geisinger Holy Spirit and Geisinger Wyoming Valley Medical Center are recognized by the National Accreditation Program for Breast Centers (NAPBC), a program that acknowledges centers that provide the highest quality care to women with breast disease. We've held this distinction for more than 10 years. This means our patients receive the highest level of care from diagnosis to treatment and beyond, throughout every step of their care.
- World-class care, close to home –With several locations throughout central, northeast and south-central Pennsylvania, our experienced cancer team provides consultations and comprehensive care. We offer leading-edge treatment options and tailored-to-you care backed by the expertise and innovation of a nationally recognized health system.
- Comprehensive specialty care – From chemotherapy, radiation and minimally invasive surgery options to national clinical trials and genetic testing, our breast cancer specialists are dedicated to offering innovative treatment options and personalized care in convenient locations, so you don’t have to travel far. We’ll work with you to develop a personalized breast cancer care plan based on your individual needs.
- Leading-edge clinical trials – Our extensive history with cancer research and clinical trials gives you access to new treatments before they become widely available. Participating in a trial may help you get better even if standard approaches haven’t worked. Find a clinical trial.
- Genetic testing and counseling programs – Special research programs, such as MyCode, are only available at Geisinger. Participating in MyCode allows you to contribute to genetic research. By participating, some may receive information about their own genetic risks. Learn about MyCode.
- Cancer survivorship program – Just because your treatment is complete doesn’t mean your journey has ended. We offer a variety of support resources focused on helping you live your healthiest life. Learn about patient resources.
Specialized breast clinics
We offer three specialty clinics to support your cancer journey at every step:
- Multidisciplinary Breast Clinic: Enables patients with newly diagnosed breast cancer to receive their treatment plan in a comprehensive, single-appointment setting. Our multidisciplinary team consists of providers from multiple specialties including radiologists, pathologists, surgeons, medical oncologists, plastic surgery, social workers, nurses and nurse navigators.
- High-Risk Breast Clinic: For patients with a family history of breast cancer, dense breasts or a concern about their personal risk factors, our team will evaluate their individual risks and determine a path forward, if needed.
- Inherited Risk Breast Clinic: Our team will evaluate those with a genetic risk factor and determine a best path forward.