Dr. Kelly McAlarney, a breast fellowship-trained radiologist with Nash UNC Health Care’s Breast Care Center, answers many commonly asked questions about breast cancer.

Q: What Causes Breast Cancer?

A: We do not know exactly what causes breast cancer, but certain risk factors may increase the likelihood of developing breast cancer — a person’s age, diet, genetic factors, and personal health history. Other dangers include the chemicals in personal care and home cleaning products, pesticides, and plastics, especially water bottles. Men can also develop breast cancer, but it is very rare. Less than one percent of all breast cancer cases occur in men.

Q: Exactly what is a tumor?

A: In the human body, cells typically reproduce only when new cells are needed, but sometimes cells can grow out of control. These cells create a mass of tissue – a tumor. If these cells are normal, the tumor is not cancerous, it’s benign. But if this growing mass of cells is abnormal, that is, the cells don’t function as they should, the tumor is cancerous, or referred to as malignant. Breast cancer can invade and grow into tissue surrounding the breast, and may even travel to other parts of the body where new tumors may form. This process is called metastasis. The term “metastasized” means that the cancer has spread, most likely to the lymph nodes, liver, lungs, bones, or brain.

Q: I Feel Helpless About Breast Cancer. What Can I Do?

A: First, it is important to be concerned. Breast cancer is the second most common type of cancer in women. About 1 in 8 women born today in the United States will get breast cancer at some point in her life. More women in Rocky Mount and surrounding areas are diagnosed and die from breast cancer than national and North Carolina averages.

Q: What about self-exams?

A: There’s been a lot of talk lately about breast self-exams. While once considered very important, many doctors no longer recommend them. If done properly, it is possible that a self-exam can help find lumps in the breast, but often they’re done in-correctly and lead to a lot of worry over nothing. Women may be just as likely to discover a lump or mass while playing tennis, gardening, or doing other activities. Occasionally, a partner will be the first to find a lump or other abnormality.


Q: What should I do if I feel a lump in my breast?

A: If you feel a lump or mass in your breasts or you see any abnormalities in your breasts – a change in shape, a dent or pulling of skin, a dis-charge, or a change in nipple shape – contact your primary care physician to schedule a clinical breast exam. After your visit, your doctor may recommend a follow-up appointment where you will receive a diagnostic mammogram, a targeted breast ultra-sound, or both, to check out your lump. Rest assured that most lumps are not cancerous or life-threatening.


Q: I don’t have any extra money right now. How long can I wait to get a mammogram?

A: There are many resources for funding breast cancer screenings. Never let money be a barrier for getting this testing. Your physician can recommend these resources or you can call the Nash Health Care Foundation for assistance at 252-962-6100.


Q: I hear about “stages” of breast cancer. What does that mean?

A: Stage is a measure of how much cancer has progressed, whether it is limited to one area of the breast, or whether it has spread to other parts of the body. The smaller the number, the better. For instance, Stage 0 and I have a 5-year survival rate of almost 100%. If breast cancer is detected at Stage IV, this rate is only 22%.


Regular mammograms are the best way to catch breast cancer. Delaying a mammogram gives cancer time to grow and spread. Catching breast cancer early is the key.

Q: Are there different types of mammograms?

A: Technology has improved dramatically and we now have 3D mammography, also known as tomosynthesis. In the simplest terms, traditional 2D mammography is sometimes compared to examining a whole loaf of bread, while 3D mammography is like examining a loaf of bread one slice at a time. Radiologists, the doctors who examine the many layers of scans produced with 3D imaging, are able to get a clearer picture of breast tissue, especially for women with dense breasts. 3D mammography helps prevent unnecessary callbacks for further testing and the anxiety associated with this visit. In our community, the Nash Breast Care Center on the Nash UNC Health Care campus uses state-of-the-art 3D equipment and has been designated by the American College of Radiology as a Breast Imaging Center of Excellence.

Q: Breast density… What has that got to do with breast cancer?

A: Breast density is not determined by how your breasts feel. Dense breasts simply have more gland and supportive tissue for milk production. A mammogram is able to reveal breast density by the thickness of tissue measured.

Q: My mother had breast cancer. Does this make me more likely to develop breast cancer?

A: The answer to this question is complicated. In fact, both your mom and dad can affect your likelihood of developing breast cancer. You should let your physician know about any relatives who have had breast cancer.