Breast Cancer FAQs

Breast Cancer Questions & Answers

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in U.S. women after skin cancer. Women’s lifetime average risk is 13%, meaning there’s a 1 in 8 chance of developing breast cancer. Below are some of the most frequently asked questions and answers about breast cancer signs, types, stages as well as diagnosis and treatment.

If you’re not receiving chemotherapy as part of your breast cancer treatment plan, then you’ll usually receive radiation soon after surgery for breast cancer removal. The timing of your radiation therapy treatments will depend on the type of radiation.

Chemotherapy isn’t usually part of treatment for the earlier stages of breast cancer, but your Mercy doctor will consider many factors including emotional and physical well-being and family history in determining your treatment plan. 

The length and schedule of your chemotherapy, as part of your comprehensive breast cancer treatment plan, will depend on the combination of drugs given and your individual needs. 

In some cases, a mastectomy alone can cure breast cancer. However, breast cancer may return after a mastectomy, especially if cancer was found in the lymph nodes.  

Treatment for noninvasive breast cancer usually involves a combination of surgery, radiation therapy and systemic therapies.

Many breast lumps are benign, meaning they’re non-cancerous. About 20% of the time, breast lumps are cancerous. A breast biopsy is the best way to detect cancer.

No, blood tests cannot diagnose breast cancer. They may however be used in monitoring breast cancer after diagnosis. For example, tumor-marker tests may be used to monitor advanced breast cancer after diagnosis. Additionally, blood tests can help your Mercy doctor determine how your body may be affected by cancer. 

Genetic testing has limitations. For example, if your BRCA test is negative, you still have a chance of developing breast cancer. And with a positive test result, you still have a 15-20% chance of not developing breast cancer. A genetic counselor can help you decide if genetic testing is right for you.

It’s hard to estimate how fast breast cancer spreads because different types of breast cancer grow at different rates. Additionally, other factors affect the growth rate of breast cancer including the grade and stage, family history and responsiveness to treatment methods.

Cancerous lumps in breasts are usually hard masses with irregular edges that won’t move when pushed and grow over time. It’s often easier to feel breast cancer than see it. Visual signs of breast cancer may include changes in breast size or shape, nipple discharge, inverted nipple, and peeling or flaky skin.

Breast cancer lumps can vary in size and shape, depending on the type and stage of cancer. They aren't always painful, which is why regular breast exams are so important to the early detection of breast cancer. See your Mercy doctor if you’re having persistent breast pain.

Although breast cancer is often painless, it can cause changes in skin cells that lead to burning, tenderness and discomfort.

Many people never have a recurrence (breast cancer that returns after treatment), but anyone with a history of breast cancer has an increased risk. Women with inflammatory or triple-negative breast cancer have a higher risk of recurrence.

Breast cancer can take several forms, and knowing the type you have helps Mercy doctors provide the most effective treatments. Types of breast cancer include the following:

Ductal Carcinoma in Situ
Breast cancer begins in the cells that line milk ducts, but it’s contained and hasn’t spread to surrounding breast tissue.

Invasive Ductal Carcinoma
Breast cancer starts in the milk-duct lining, spreads to surrounding breast tissue, and can spread further through the blood and lymph system.


Invasive Lobular Carcinoma
Breast cancer begins in the milk glands (lobules), spreads to surrounding breast tissue, and can spread further through the blood and lymph systems.


Breast cancer cells block the lymph vessels, making the breast red, swollen and warm. Breast skin may also be pitted (like an orange).


Triple-negative breast cancer is cancer that lacks the three common receptors found in most types of breast cancer:  estrogen, progesterone and human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2). Without these receptors, some treatments aren’t as effective, so others are used.


Hormone Receptor-Positive/ER-Positive
This breast cancer needs the hormone estrogen to grow, which affects the types of treatments used.


Breast cancer cells have too many HER2 receptors, making them grow and spread quickly. Treatments may target HER2-positive cells.


Metastatic breast cancer spreads from the place it began to other parts of the body.


Recurrent breast cancer comes back after treatment – either in the place, it began or in other parts of the body.

DNA from a blood or saliva sample is used for BRCA gene testing. The sample is analyzed at a lab, and results are usually available in about a month. Testing can be done for one or both BRCA genes, depending on your family history and risk factors.

You can get screening tests and exams to help detect breast cancer at an early stage.

  • Beginning at age 19, perform regular breast self-exams and have a clinical breast exam by a Mercy doctor or Mercy OB/GYN each year.
  • From ages 40 to 74, have an annual screening mammogram.
  • If you have a family history of breast cancer, start before age 40. If you’re age 75 or older, in good health and expected to live 10 years or longer, continue having screening mammograms as recommended by your Mercy doctor. 

Yes. Fathers and mothers both have a 50% risk of passing BRCA gene mutations to their children.

Your Mercy doctor will consider your personal and family history to decide if you’re at risk for inherited breast cancer. If so, you’ll be referred to a genetic counselor. Your genetic counselor will recommend the type and timing of genetic testing that’s best for you and your family.

You should start performing regular breast self-exams and having clinical breast exams at age 19. Have an annual screening mammogram beginning at age 40, but start earlier if you have a family history of breast cancer. Discuss breast cancer screening with your Mercy doctor or Mercy OB/GYN.

The Affordable Care Act requires insurance companies to pay for genetic counseling and testing for women who meet U.S. Preventive Services Task Force guidelines and other criteria. If you don’t have insurance coverage, programs are available to help.

Breast density refers to breasts with more fibrous than fatty tissue, making them more prone to breast cancer. Dense breasts also make it harder to see cancer on mammograms. Breast density can be inherited or caused by hormone replacement therapy or a low body mass index. 

Each mutation affects your risk of breast cancer and other cancers slightly differently. In general, the risk of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, prostate cancer, and pancreatic cancer is increased with either mutation. 

Yes. Genetic testing is a safe and effective way to learn whether you’ve inherited gene mutations that greatly increase your lifetime risk of developing breast cancer. Knowing your genetic risk helps you and your Mercy doctor create a prevention strategy based on your personal and family history.

It’s genetic testing to find out if you’ve inherited harmful gene mutations that increase your risk of developing breast cancer. Talk with your Mercy doctor about whether this type of testing is right for you.

Genetic screening helps people with inherited breast cancer risks take steps to prevent cancer or detect it earlier when it’s easier to treat. This reduces cancer treatment costs and helps people with a family history of breast cancer live healthier lives.

Genetic changes (called mutations) are passed down in families. Your lifetime risk for breast cancer increases if you inherit a BRCA gene mutation from either parent. Other breast cancers are seen repeatedly in families when family members share behaviors that increase risks, such as smoking and obesity.

Although male breast cancer is rare, men can also carry mutated BRCA genes. A man’s lifetime risk of developing breast cancer is 1% with a BRCA1 mutation and 6% with a BRCA2 mutation. He is also at increased risk of other cancers such as prostate.

BRCA gene mutations are inherited in an autosomal dominant pattern, which means you only need to get the abnormal gene from one parent to be affected by the disease. 

Implants aren’t a direct cause of breast cancer, but research shows women with certain implants are at higher risk of anaplastic large-cell lymphoma – rare cancer that starts in the lymph system.

Although breast cancer typically isn't diagnosed in women between ages 15 - 19, teenagers who are diagnosed often have more advanced stages. Teens with symptoms similar to those of breast cancer can overlap with common injuries and illnesses.

If close relatives had breast cancer before age 45 – or ovarian cancer at any age – your breast cancer risk is higher. It’s especially high if more than one relative was diagnosed with breast cancer or a relative had male breast cancer. BRCA gene mutations may also be inherited. Some breast cancer is caused by gene defects inherited from a parent. Other breast cancers run in families when family members share behaviors that increase cancer risks, such as smoking and obesity. Talk to your Mercy provider about genetic testing for breast cancer.

Breast cancer that comes back after treatment is called recurrence. It can return in the same area of the breast, nearby or in another part of the body. Cancer found in the opposite breast is not considered recurrent breast cancer. Breast cancer survivors are at higher risk of recurrent and new breast cancer.

Although it’s rare, men can also develop cancer in their breast tissues. For men, the lifetime risk for breast cancer is about 1 in 833.

Some risk factors for breast cancer can’t be controlled, such as age and genetics. However, more than 20% of breast cancer cases could be prevented by lifestyle changes. Additional steps can be taken to reduce your risk.


  • Regular breast cancer screening tests - get your screening mammogram as recommended by your Mercy doctor. Beginning at age 19, women should perform regular breast self-exams and have a clinical breast exam by a Mercy doctor or Mercy OB/GYN each year.

  • Maintain a healthy weight & exercise regularly - being overweight or obese is linked to higher breast cancer risk. Aim for 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous workout time weekly.

  • Limit or avoid alcohol - even low levels of alcohol increase your breast cancer risk. Have no more than one alcoholic drink each day.

  • Breastfeed - women who breastfeed for several months benefit from reduced breast cancer risk.