Breast Cancer Overview
Cancer occurs when there are mutations in genes that
regulate cell growth. The mutations let the cells divide and multiply in an
uncontrolled, chaotic way. The cells keep multiplying, producing progressively
more abnormal copies rather than reverting towards being healthy cells. This eventually
forms a tumor in most cases.
Breast cancer is cancer that develops in breast cells.
Usually, the cancer forms in the lobules or ducts of the breast. These are the
glands that produce milk and the pathways that help bring the milk from the
glands to the nipple. Cancer can also occur in fatty and fibrous breast tissue.
This is known as stromal tissue.
The uncontrolled cancer cells start to invade healthy breast
tissue and can travel to the lymph nodes under the arms. The lymph nodes are a
primary pathway that helps the cancer cells move to other parts of the body.
How Common Is Breast Cancer?
According to the American
Cancer Society, approximately 232,240 new cases of invasive breast cancer
were expected to be diagnosed in 2013. More than 64,000 non-invasive breast
cancer diagnoses (carcinoma in situ) were also expected. More than 39,000 women
were expected to die from the disease. Breast cancer can also be diagnosed in
men, and it was estimated that in 2013, more than 2,000 men were diagnosed.
What Are the Types?
Several types of breast cancer exist. The type you have
determines your treatment options, as well as your prognosis.
The most common types of breast cancer include:
Ductal carcinoma in
situ. Ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) is a non-invasive precursor for
cancer. If you have DCIS, the cells that line the ducts in your breast have
changed and now look cancerous. Unlike cancerous cells, however, DCIS cells
haven’t invaded the surrounding breast tissue.
Lobular carcinoma in
situ. Lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS) is cancer that grows in the
milk-producing glands of your breast. However, the cancer cells haven’t yet
invaded the surrounding tissue.
carcinoma. Invasive ductal carcinoma (IDC) is the most common type of
breast cancer. This type of breast cancer begins in your breast’s milk ducts
and then invades nearby tissue in the breast. Once the breast cancer has spread
to the tissue outside your milk ducts, it can begin to spread to other nearby
organs and tissue.
carcinoma. Invasive lobular carcinoma (ILC) first develops in your breast’s
lobules, or milk-producing glands. If breast cancer is diagnosed as ILC, it has
already spread to nearby tissue and organs.
Other types of breast cancer are less common. These include:
cancer. Inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) is an uncommon type. In IBC, cells
block the lymph nodes, so the breast can’t properly drain. However, instead of
creating a tumor, IBC causes your breast to swell, look red, and feel very
warm. A cancerous breast may appear pitted and thick, like an orange peel. IBC
makes up only slightly more than one percent of all breast cancer cases.
breast cancer. To be diagnosed as triple negative breast cancer, a tumor
must have all three of the following characteristics:
- It must lack estrogen receptors.
- It must lack progesterone receptors.
- It must not have additional HER2 proteins on its
surface. HER2 is a protein that fuels breast cancer growth.
If a tumor meets these three criteria, it’s labeled a
triple-negative breast cancer. This type of breast cancer has a tendency to
grow and spread more quickly than other types of breast cancer. Triple-negative
breast cancers are also difficult to treat because traditional breast cancer
treatments are not effective.
Paget disease of the
nipple. This type of breast cancer begins in the breasts’ ducts, but as it
grows, it begins to affect the skin and areola of your nipple. Paget disease
may occur with other types of breast cancer, such as DCIS or IDC.
This very rare type of breast cancer grows in the connective tissue of the
Cancer that grows on the blood vessels or lymph vessels in your breast is
Who Is at Risk for Developing Breast Cancer?
There are several risk factors that can increase your
chances of getting breast cancer. However, having any of these doesn’t mean you
will definitely develop the disease.
Some risk factors can’t be avoided, like family history.
Other risk factors, like smoking, you can change. You can take steps to help
protect your health and get regular screening, which helps catch the disease at
an earlier stage.
Risk factors include:
Age. Your risk
for developing breast cancer increases as you age. Roughly 12 percent of
invasive breast cancer occurs in women under age 45, but 66 percent of invasive
breast cancers are found in women over age 55.
Excessive alcohol consumption can increase your risk.
Dense breast tissue.
Dense breast tissue makes mammograms hard to read. It also increases your risk
for breast cancer.
Gender. Women are
100 times more likely to develop breast cancer than men.
Genes. Women who
have the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations are more likely to develop breast
cancer than women who don’t. Other gene mutations may affect your risk, too.
If you had your first period before age 12, you have an increased risk for
Giving birth at an
older age. Women who don’t have their first child until after age 35 have
an increased risk of breast cancer.
Women who took or are taking postmenopausal estrogen and progesterone
medications to reduce their signs of menopause have a higher risk of breast
If a close female relative has had breast cancer, you have an increased risk
for developing it. This includes your mother, grandmother, sister, or daughter.
If you don’t have a family history of breast cancer, you can still develop
breast cancer. In fact, the majority of women who develop it have no family
history of the disease.
Late menopause start.
Women who do not start menopause until after age 55 are more likely to develop
Never being pregnant.
Women who never became pregnant and carried a pregnancy to full-term are more
likely to develop breast cancer.
cancer. If you have had breast cancer in one breast, you have a 3- to
4-fold increased risk of developing breast cancer in your other breast or in a
different area of the previously affected breast.
What Are the Symptoms of Breast Cancer?
Breast cancer may not cause any symptoms in its early stages.
The tumor may be too small to be felt, but an abnormality can be seen on a
mammogram. If the tumor can be felt, the first sign is usually a new lump in
the breast that was not there before. Not all lumps are cancer. It’s a good
idea to see your doctor if you find a lump.
Each type of breast cancer may cause a variety of symptoms.
Many of these symptoms are similar, but some can be different. Symptoms for the
most common breast cancers include:
- a lump or tissue thickening that feels different
than surrounding tissue and has only recently developed
- red, pitted skin over the entire breast
- swelling in all or part of the breast
- a nipple discharge other than breast milk
- bloody discharge from your nipple
- peeling, scaling, or flaking of skin on the
nipple or breast
- a sudden, unexplained change in the shape or
size of your breast
- inverted nipple
- changes to the appearance of your breasts’ skin
- a lump or swelling under the arm
If you have any of these symptoms, it doesn’t mean you
necessarily have breast cancer. Follow up with your doctor for further
examination and testing.
How Is Breast Cancer Diagnosed?
To determine if your symptoms are caused by breast cancer or
a benign breast condition, your doctor will want to conduct a thorough physical
examination. They may also request one or more diagnostic tests to help
understand what is causing the symptoms you are experiencing.
Tests that can help diagnose breast cancer include:
exam. Your doctor will conduct a thorough breast exam, checking both
breasts for abnormal spots or signs of breast cancer. Your doctor may also
check other parts of your body to see if the symptoms you’re experiencing could
be related to another condition.
Perhaps the best way to see below the surface of your breast is with an imaging
test called a mammogram. Many women get annual mammograms to check for breast
cancer. If your doctor suspects you may have a tumor or suspicious spot, they
will also request a mammogram. If an abnormality is seen on your mammogram,
your doctor may request additional tests.
A breast ultrasound creates a picture of the tissues deep in your breast. The
ultrasound uses sound waves to do this. An ultrasound can help your doctor
distinguish between a solid mass, like a tumor, and a benign cyst.
If both a mammogram and an ultrasound are inconclusive, your doctor may wish to
take a sample of the suspicious spot and have it tested. To do this, your
doctor will remove a sample of the suspicious spot and send it to a laboratory.
If the sample is positive for cancer, the lab can test it further in order to
tell your doctor the type of cancer you have.
Breast cancer can be divided into stages based on how severe
it is. Cancers that have grown and invaded nearby tissues and organs are at a
higher stage than cancers that are still contained to the breast. In order to
stage a breast cancer, doctors need to know:
- if the cancer is invasive or non-invasive
- how large the tumor is
- whether or not the lymph nodes are involved
- if the cancer has spread to nearby tissue or
Breast cancer has five main stages. They are:
Stage 0. Stage 0 breast cancer is ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS).
DCIS is a type of pre-cancerous growth. Cancer cells in DCIS remain confined to
the ducts in the breast and have not spread beyond the ducts and into nearby
Stage 1. Stage 1
tumors are no larger than 2 centimeters (cm). Lymph nodes are not impacted by
stage 1 breast cancer.
Stage 2. Stage 2
breast cancers can be divided into two categories. The first type of stage 2
breast cancer has a tumor that is no larger than 2 cm, but the cancer has
spread to lymph nodes. The second type of stage 2 breast cancer has a tumor
that is between 2 and 5 cm, but the cancer has not spread to any lymph nodes or
Stage 3. Several
types of cancers can be at stage 3. The first is a tumor that is no larger than
5 cm, but this tumor has not spread to nearby lymph nodes or tissue. Breast
cancer may be at stage 3 if the cancer has spread into the chest wall or skin
but not the lymph nodes. Another type of stage 3 breast cancer can be a tumor
of any size with lymph nodes in distant areas of the body having cancer, too.
Stage 4. Stage 4
breast cancer can have a tumor of any size, and the cancer has spread to nearby
and distant lymph nodes, as well as distant organs.
How Is Breast Cancer Treated? | Treatment
Your breast cancer’s stage, how far it has invaded, and how
big the tumor has grown all play a large part in determining which treatments
you will need. Once your doctor has
determined your cancer’s size, stage, and grade, the two of you can discuss
your treatment options. Surgery is the most common treatment for breast cancer.
In addition to surgery, most women with breast cancer undergo a complementary
treatment, such as chemotherapy, radiation, or hormone therapy.
Several types of surgery may be used to remove breast
procedure removes only the suspicious or cancerous spot, leaving most
surrounding tissue in place.
Mastectomy. In this
procedure, a surgeon removes an entire breast. In a double mastectomy, both breasts are removed.
Sentinel node biopsy.
This surgery removes some of the lymph nodes that receive drainage from the
tumor. These lymph nodes will be tested, and if they don’t have cancer, you may
not need additional lymph-removing surgery.
Axillary lymph node
dissection. If lymph nodes removed during a sentinel node biopsy test
positive, your doctor may perform this procedure to remove additional lymph
prophylactic mastectomy. Even though breast cancer may be present in only
one breast, some women elect to have a contralateral prophylactic mastectomy. This
surgery removes your healthy breast to reduce your risk of developing breast
High-powered beams of X-rays can be used to target and kill
cancer cells. Most radiation treatments use a large machine on the outside of
the body (external beam radiation).
Advances in cancer treatment have brought about the ability
to radiate cancer from inside the body. This type of radiation treatment is
called brachytherapy. To conduct brachytherapy, surgeons place radioactive
seeds or pellets inside the body, near the tumor site. The seeds stay there for
a short period of time each day and work to reduce cancer cells.
Chemotherapy is a drug that can destroy cancer cells. Some
patients may undergo chemotherapy alone, but this type of treatment is often
used in conjunction with other treatments, especially surgery.
In some cases, doctors prefer to give patients chemotherapy
before surgery. The hope is that the medicine will shrink the tumor so the
surgery will not have to be as invasive. Chemotherapy has many unwanted side
effects, so discuss your concerns with your doctor before beginning treatment
with this powerful drug.
If your type of breast cancer is sensitive to hormones, your
doctor may start you on therapy to block hormones to help slow and possibly
stop the growth of your cancer. Estrogen and progesterone, two female hormones,
can stimulate breast cancer tumor growth. Taking medicines to stop or block the
production of these hormones may help slow the growth of your cancer.
Certain medications are designed to attack specific
abnormalities or mutations within cancer cells. For example, Herceptin (trastuzumab)
can block the production of the HER2 protein. HER2 helps breast cancer cells
grow, so taking a medication to slow the protein production may help slow
Seeking Medical Help
If you detect an unusual lump or spot in your breast, make
an appointment to see your doctor. Likewise, if you begin experiencing any of
the symptoms of breast cancer without explanation, check to see if you can get
an appointment with your doctor.
Conducting monthly self-examinations will help you detect
changes in your breasts more quickly than if you examine yourself less
frequently or not at all. Each year, during your annual check-up, your doctor
should also check for changes in your breasts. Don’t be afraid to see your
doctor about any suspicious spots. Early-stage breast cancer can often be
treated easily and cured if found quickly enough. The longer breast cancer is
allowed to grow, the more difficult treatment becomes.
Breast cancer doesn’t have an identifiable cause. For that
reason, it can’t be prevented entirely. However, several of the risk factors
that may lead to breast cancer can be addressed through a healthy lifestyle and
For example, women who are obese have a higher risk of
developing breast cancer. Learning and maintaining a healthy diet may help
lower your risk. The same goes for alcohol consumption. A daily glass of wine,
spirits, or beer may not have a significant impact on your breast cancer risk,
but having more than that each day may put you at a higher risk. Binge drinking
also increases your risk for breast cancer.
Get regular exercise. Exercise helps shed unwanted pounds
and can encourage you to maintain a healthier lifestyle.
Reduce the odds that your breast cancer will go undetected
by having regular physical exams with your doctor. Many women should also
receive yearly mammograms. Recommendations for mammograms are different for each
woman, so talk with your doctor to see if you should get regular mammograms.
You may be the best line in the fight against breast cancer.
Regular self-exams can help you detect possible breast cancer tumors before
they are able to grow too large. Conduct self-exams at least once a month. Talk
with your doctor about how to conduct this test.
Women who have an increased risk of breast cancer because of
an inherited factor, such as gene mutations, may wish to act in a preventive
fashion. If you know you have an increased risk of breast cancer, you might
want to consider having a prophylactic mastectomy. This procedure removes
healthy breasts in order to cut your risk of developing breast cancer.