Learn more about advancements in breast cancer care

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.

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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.


If you are over 40 years old, a prescription is not required for a screening mammography.

About UPMC Hillman Cancer Center

When you are facing cancer, you need the best care possible. UPMC Hillman Cancer Center provides world-class cancer care, from diagnosis to treatment, to help you in your cancer battle. We are the only comprehensive cancer center in our region, as designated by the National Cancer Institute. We have more than 70 locations throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York, with more than 200 oncologists – making it easier for you to find world-class care close to home. Our internationally renowned research team is striving to find new advances in prevention, detection, and treatment. Most of all, we are here for you. Our patient-first approach aims to provide you and your loved ones the care and support you need. To find a provider near you, visit our website.

About UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital

For more than a century, UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital has provided high-quality medical care to women at all stages of life. UPMC Magee is long-renowned for its services to women and babies but also offers a wide range of care to men as well. Our patient-first approach ensures you and your loved ones get the care you need. Nearly 10,000 babies are born each year at Magee, and our NICU is one of the largest in the country. Our network of care – from imaging centers to hospital services – provides care throughout Pennsylvania and Maryland, giving you a chance to get the expert care you need close to home. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recognizes UPMC Magee as a National Center of Excellence in Women’s Health, and the Magee-Womens Research Institute is the largest research institute in the U.S. devoted exclusively to women’s health and reproductive biology.