Frequently Asked Questions About Breast Cancer

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.

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 regular 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 (parent, sibling, child) 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.

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.

How can I 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.

How can I get a breast cancer screening?

1) Free breast cancer screening is available for eligible, uninsured New York residents through New York State Cancer Services Program. You may be eligible if you:

  • Live in New York State
  • Do not have health insurance
  • Have health insurance with a cost share that may a barrier to care
  • Meet income eligibility requirements
  • Meet age requirements

To get more information or to be connected to a Cancer Services Program near you, call 1-866-442-CANCER (2262) or visit the Cancer Services Program website to find a program in your area. The call is free, and the service is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Hablamos español. There are also translation services available for other languages.

If you do not live in New York State, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to find a low and/or no cost screening program in your state.

2) Breast cancer screening is an essential health benefit under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, so health plans participating in the New York State of Health must cover breast cancer screening tests at no cost to the patient. For more information, go to the New York State of Health: The Official Health Plan Marketplace, or call the help line at 1.855.355.5777 or TTY: 1.800.662.1220

3) Breast cancer screening is fully covered through New York's Medicaid program.

4) Frequently Asked Questions About the NYS Breast Cancer Screening Law

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.