Published on October 02, 2018

Nash Breast Care Center’s Dr. Kelly McAlarney Emphasizes Early Detection for Breast Cancer

October is Breast Cancer Awareness month; its purpose is to educate and remind the public about the need for early cancer detection, treatment options, and the ongoing need for a reliable, permanent cure for breast cancer.

The American Cancer Society indicates that about 1 in 8 women born today in the United States will get breast cancer at some point in her life. Dr. Kelly McAlarney, a breast fellowship-trained radiologist with Nash UNC Health Care’s Breast Care Center, shared in a recent interview that more women in Rocky Mount and surrounding areas are diagnosed and die from breast cancer than both the national and North Carolina averages.

The following interview with Dr. McAlarney shares answers to many of the most commonly asked questions about breast cancer, and emphasizes the need for regularly scheduled mammograms, talking with your doctor, and the importance of early detection.

Q: What Causes Breast Cancer?

A: We do not know exactly what causes breast cancer to occur, but we do know that certain risk factors may increase the likelihood of developing breast cancer, including a person’s age, diet, genetic factors, and personal health history. Other dangers include exposure to 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 Am I Supposed to Do?

A: First, it is important to be concerned. Breast cancer is the second most common type of cancer in women. But there is good news. Most women can, and do, survive breast cancer if it’s found and treated early. The most important thing you can do to fight breast cancer is get regular mammograms – the screening test for breast cancer. A mammogram can help find breast cancer early when it’s easier to treat.

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 while showering, it is possible that a self-exam can help find lumps in the breast, but often they’re done incorrectly 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. And occasionally, a partner will be the first to find a lump or other abnormality.

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

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 discharge, 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 ultrasound, 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 now. How long can I wait to get a mammogram?

A: There are many resources for funding breast cancer screenings. If you find a lump, do not wait. 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.

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, Stages 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 ways 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. Another big benefit: 3D mammography helps prevent an unnecessary callback for further testing and the anxiety associated with this visit.

Q: You mentioned 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 in relation to fatty tissue. Dense breast tissue does increase the risk of cancer; it can also make breast cancer screening more difficult. If you have dense breasts, your doctor may request additional imaging.

Q: My mother had breast cancer. Am I more likely to develop breast cancer?

A: The answer to this question is complicated. In fact, all your first degree relatives, including mother, father, and siblings, can affect your likelihood of developing breast cancer. You should let your physician know about any relatives who have had breast cancer.

Nash Breast Care Center uses state-of-the-art 3D imaging equipment and has been designated by the American College of Radiology as a Breast Imaging Center of Excellence. For an appointment, call 252-962-6100. For more information, visit

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