Your guide to understanding breast cancer

Approximately one in eight women are diagnosed with breast cancer each year in Canada. 

Ontario alone sees just under 11,000 cases annually, according to the Canadian Breast Cancer Network (CBCN).

CBCN offers information and education to assist Canadians diagnosed with breast cancer. That also raises awareness on issues affecting patients, according to Rebecca Armstrong, CBCN’s Manager of Patient Education Programs.  

It is important for women to understand what breast cancer looks like and how to treat it. 

Diagnosis and treatment options can be overwhelming. In an effort to reduce that stress, Armstrong helped Women Quest create a guide to better understand the disease.

Photo by Anna Shvets

Identifying breast cancer

Women Quest: What is breast cancer?

Rebecca Armstrong: Breast cancer occurs when the cells in the breast grow and divide in an uncontrollable way. Typically, normal cells in our body start off, they grow, they divide and then they die. When breast cancer occurs, it means they lose that ability to die. Either they’ve been damaged, or something else causes them to resist that cell death. That’s how it really becomes cancerous.

WQ: What are the early signs of breast cancer?

RA: If you have a family history, that’s something that would contribute to possibly getting screened at an earlier age.  We try to encourage women to be aware of their breasts, how they feel and how they look. If you notice any changes at all, that’s a really important time to go speak to your doctor. 

That’s not only just lumps, but some rare forms of breast cancer can present on the skin. Symptoms like dimpling, an unexplained rash  or inverted nipples are things to watch out for. 

Testing and diagnosis

WQ: How do you get tested for breast cancer?

RA: Testing typically is in the form of mammography. It’s an image that is done on your breast just to ensure that there are no abnormal cells. If the specialists see something that might be concerning or abnormal, then they move on to other types of tests. These can be tests like biopsies, or other types of imaging, which can be ultrasound or MRI.

Photo by Klaus Nielsen

WQ: How often should women get tested?

RA: It’s typically every two years starting at 50 to get a mammogram. If you have family history, a genetic mutation or other risk factors, then it’s really dependent on each individual person. It’s important to have a discussion with your doctor. 


WQ: If your results come back positive, where do you go from there?

RA: You’ll be referred to an oncologist at your local cancer centre. They will discuss what treatment options are available to you. That is really dependent on the type and the stage of your cancer and how aggressive it is. But it typically is surgery. Radiation is a potential treatment option and systemic therapy, which includes chemotherapy and other targeted therapies.

Photo by Antonius Ferret

WQ: Are there any misconceptions surrounding breast cancer and treatment options?

RA: I guess people think that if you’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer, it means you’re going to die from it. That’s obviously not true. Any breast cancer, from Stage I to Stage III, is treated as trying to cure it. If you have Stage IV metastatic breast cancer, that is typically considered incurable. But just because you get breast cancer doesn’t mean you’re necessarily going to die from it. It’s a very treatable disease.


WQ: What are the best resources available for women with breast cancer?

RA: The internet has a lot of information. It can be very overwhelming. We do have a lot of information on our site specifically for people who are newly diagnosed. Websites like CBCN or even the Canadian Cancer Society are always really good places to look for information. I also recommend reaching out to your oncologist to see if there’s a social worker available at your cancer centre. They’re always very specialized in knowing what kind of services and information is available in those specific communities. CBCN has a Facebook group for patients who are dying or people who are diagnosed with breast cancer. That’s also a good resource to look into.

Photo by Michelle Leman


WQ: How do you navigate life after treatment is over?

RA: You definitely live with a new normal post-treatment with breast cancer. It’s important to find that community of support, whether that be through friends or family or support groups. I think it’s also really important to have a conversation with not only your oncologist, but your family doctor. See what follow-up care will look like and how they will continue to monitor you. Regular screening after you’ve had a cancer diagnosis is obviously something that continues to be done.  Ensure you have all the information available on what that recurrence looks like. That is also a very personal risk in the same way your risk of getting breast cancer is very personal. It’s the same for recurrence as well. It’s important to know what that risk is and how to help mitigate those risks as best as possible.

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