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For more information contact:

1-866-442-CANCER (2262)

Cancer Services Program
Bureau of Chronic Disease Control
New York State Department of Health
Riverview Center, Suite 350
Albany, NY 12204-0678
canserv@health.ny.gov

Breast Cancer Screening and Prevention

What is breast cancer?

Breast cancer is cancer that forms in the breast. Breast cancer is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths among women in New York State.1

Regular check-ups and screening tests can find breast cancer at an earlier stage, when treatment works best. The most important action women can take is to have routine breast cancer screenings.

Who gets breast cancer?

All women can get breast cancer. Although the causes of breast cancer are still unknown, there are some factors that may increase a woman's chances of getting the disease:

  • Getting older - Most women are diagnosed when they are 50 years of age or older
  • Having a first menstrual period at a young age (younger than 12 years)
  • Starting menopause at an older age (older than 55 years)
  • Never giving birth, or giving birth to a first child after age 30
  • Not breastfeeding
  • Having had breast cancer or some non-cancerous breast diseases
  • Having a close family member (mother, sister, father, daughter) who has had breast cancer, especially at an early age
  • Having certain gene mutations such as BRCA 1 or BRCA 2
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Drinking alcohol
  • Not getting enough exercise
  • Exposure to high levels of ionizing radiation to the chest area early in life
  • Long-term use of hormone replacement therapy

Even if women have one or more of these risk factors, it does not mean they will get breast cancer. Also, many women who get breast cancer do not have any risk factors. This is why screening is important for all women.

Women with a personal or family history (close family relative) of breast cancer may want to consider genetic counseling to find out if they are at greater risk for getting the disease.

While very rare, it is possible for men to get breast cancer. 2,3,4

What are the symptoms of breast cancer?

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 breast cancers can be tender, soft, or rounded. It is important that any new mass, lump, or change in your breast be checked by a health care provider.

Other possible signs of breast cancer that should be checked by a health care provider include:

  • Swelling of all or part of a breast (even if no lump is felt)
  • Irritation or dimpling of breast skin
  • Breast or nipple pain
  • Nipple retraction (when the nipple turns inward)
  • Redness, scaliness, or thickening of the nipple or breast skin
  • Nipple discharge other than breast milk.

Sometimes breast cancer can spread to underarm lymph nodes and cause a lump or swelling there, even before a tumor in the breast tissue is large enough to be felt. You should tell your health care provider about any swelling in your lymph nodes.5

What can I do to lower my chances of getting breast cancer?

Research is being done on ways to prevent breast cancer. Although there is no known way to completely prevent breast cancer, there are ways to lower your risk. These include:

  • Drinking less alcohol
  • Getting regular exercise
  • Staying at a healthy weight
  • Breastfeeding (exclusively breast feeding during your baby's first 6 months, and continuing for 12 months or longer)
  • Talking to your health care provider about hormone replacement therapy, if you take it

Regular check-ups and screening tests can find breast cancer at an earlier stage, when treatment works best. The most important action women can take is to have routine breast cancer screenings.

What screening tests are done for breast cancer?

Breast cancer screening means checking the breasts for cancer before there are signs or symptoms of sickness. Three main tests are used to screen the breasts for cancer. Talk to your health care provider about which tests are right for you, and when you should have them.

  • Mammogram - A mammogram is a low-dose X-ray of the breast. Health care providers use a mammogram to look for early signs of breast cancer. Women ages 50 to 74 years old should have a screening mammogram every two years. Women ages 40–49 years old are encouraged to talk to their health care providers about when and how often they should have screening mammograms. A woman who has a high risk for breast cancer, as determined by a health care provider, may need to begin screening earlier.

    Regular mammograms are the best test health care providers have to find breast cancer early. Having regular mammograms can lower the risk of dying from breast cancer. Recommendations for when women should begin screening, and how often women should be screened, may differ among organizations that publish screening recommendations. Women should be aware of their own risk for breast cancer and decide, with a health care provider, when and how to be screened for breast cancer.6
  • Clinical breast exam - A clinical breast exam is an examination by a health care provider, who uses his or her hands to feel for lumps or other changes in the breast or underarm (armpit).
  • Breast self-exam - A breast self-exam is when women check their own breasts for lumps, changes in size or shape of the breast, or any other changes in the breasts or underarm.

At this time, guidelines suggest that the best way to find breast cancer is with a mammogram. Clinical breast exams or self-exams alone are not enough to detect breast cancer. Women who choose to have clinical breast exams and to perform breast self-exams should also get regular mammograms.7

Where can I go for a FREE breast cancer screening?

Free breast cancer screening is available for eligible, uninsured and underinsured New York residents through New York State Cancer Services Program. To get more information or to be connected to a Cancer Services Program near you, please call 1-866-442-CANCER or visit the Cancer Services Program website.

Can I get treatment for breast cancer if I don't have insurance?

Women in need of treatment for breast cancer may be eligible for coverage through the New York State Medicaid Cancer Treatment Program (NYS MCTP). Coverage lasts for the entire time you are being treated and includes medications.

To learn if you are eligible for this program or to get more information, visit the NYS MCTP website.


1NYS Cancer Registry 2004-2008

2American Cancer Society

3National Cancer Institute

4Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

5American Cancer Society

6United States Preventive Services Task Force

7Centers for Disease Control and Prevention