Learn more about advancements in breast cancer care

UPMC on the Cutting Edge of Breast Cancer Treatment in Pittsburgh

About one in eight American women will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer in her lifetime. Other than skin cancer, breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in women.

Despite its prevalence, deaths from breast cancer have been declining in recent decades thanks in part to advancements in early detection and treatment.

The Magee-Womens Breast Cancer Program at UPMC is on the cutting edge of breast cancer treatment in Pittsburgh. It is one of the busiest breast cancer treatment and research centers in the country.

Basics of Cancer Development

“Breast cancer occurs when normal breast cells develop mutations that lead to uncontrolled cell growth,” says Shannon Puhalla, MD, a medical oncologist and hematologist at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center. “These cells can invade nearby tissue and form a malignant mass called a tumor. They can also spread to lymph nodes or other parts of the body.” The most common organs or tissues to which the cancer spreads, or metastasizes, are the liver, lung, and bone.

Types of Breast Cancer

There are several different types of breast cancer:

  • Ductal carcinoma, the most common
  • Lobular carcinoma
  • Inflammatory breast cancer
  • Paget’s disease of the nipple
  • Breast cancer associated with pregnancy
  • Male breast cancer, which accounts for about 1 percent of all breast cancers

Research has deepened our knowledge of these cancers, how they grow, and how to treat them. Scientists have learned that hormones can affect cancer growth — for example, some cancers use estrogen or progesterone (or both) to grow. Some cancers have a higher amount of the protein HER2, or Human Epidermal Growth Factor Receptor 2. Understanding the hormone receptors and proteins present in each disease enables targeted treatment options that address the cancer’s spread.

Breast Cancer Risk Factors, Signs, and Prevention

Dr. Puhalla notes that many factors can increase your risk of breast cancer, including hormone replacement therapy, obesity, and age. Family history can increase your risk, but the majority of people diagnosed with breast cancer do not have a strong family history of the disease.

The earlier cancer is detected, the better your chances of survival, so knowing the signs is important. A breast lump is what many think of as an early symptom, but there are other signs to watch for as well:

  • Change in how the breast feels, whether a lump or thickening
  • Pain
  • Drainage from the nipple
  • Flaking or crusting around the nipple

Regular mammograms starting at age 40 are important for early detection as are developing lifestyle habits that lower your risk.

“Lifestyle is important,” Dr. Puhalla says. “Exercising and maintaining a healthy weight can decrease your risk. And hormone exposure also affects your risk.”

Breast Cancer Treatment Options

Most women with suspected breast cancer undergo imaging scans, such as mammography, and biopsy. Your breast density can affect imaging, but having dense breasts doesn’t necessarily increase your risk of developing breast cancer.

With better understanding of the differences in breast cancer, treatment options have improved, becoming more targeted to the specifics of your disease. For example, knowing whether the cancer has estrogen or progesterone receptors or both, as well whether the HER2 protein is present, can help doctors understand how your disease may grow and spread.

“Treatments vary from person to person,” Dr. Puhalla says. “Some may need radiation, some need chemotherapy, while others need hormone treatment or targeted therapy.” For example, along with chemotherapy, a woman with HER2-positive breast cancer would likely receive a targeted therapy to block HER2.

The Magee-Womens Breast Cancer Program has decades of experience in breast cancer treatment in Pittsburgh.

“The breast cancer research at our center has contributed immeasurably to the evolving understanding of the various types of breast cancer and how best to treat the disease with the clinical tools at hand,” Dr. Puhalla says. “We have also pioneered new treatments and avenues of research to advance patient care and improve outcomes.”

If you’re seeking breast cancer treatment or screening, contact the Magee-Womens Breast Cancer Program today.