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HomeHealth A-Z Breast Cancer
Breast Cancer
Breast Cancer
Screening methods for breast cancer includes breast self-exams, clinical exams by a doctor or nurse, and mammograms.

Breast Cancer


Definition of Breast Cancer

Breast cancer is a type of cancer that forms in the breast. Cancer is a disease caused by the uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells in the body.

Description of Breast Cancer

Breast cancer affects approximately one out of every ten women in the US.  While more women suffer from skin cancer and heart disease than breast cancer, breast cancer seems to be the disease of most concern to women.  Breast cancer awareness is very important to the successful diagnosis and treatment of the disease.  Early detection is a key factor in surviving breast cancer.

Cancer is caused by abnormal cells that grow out of control and invade healthy cells resulting in damage to the body. When cancer starts in the breast tissues, it is called breast cancer.  There are many types and stages of breast cancer.  Breast cancer treatment and outcomes vary based on several factors including what part of the breast tissue the cancer cells formed, the growth rate, if it spreads (metastasizes), when it was detected, and if it is estrogen-receptor positive or negative, and how it responds to treatment.

If the breast cancer stays in the breast ducts and breast lobules and does not spread it is known as pre-invasive breast cancer.  Two types of pre-invasive breast cancer are ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) and lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS).  Translated, "in situ" means non-invasive, so DCIS refers to non-invasive cancer of the breast ducts and LCIS refers to non-invasive cancer of the breast lobules.

Although breast cancer starts in the breast, it can spread (metastasize) to other parts of the body.  Cancer cells can spread thru the body by three basic methods - by growing into the surrounding tissues, traveling thru the bloodstream, and moving thru the lymphatic system.  If the breast cancer moves out of the breast ducts and lobules into the surrounding tissue, it is referred to as invasive breast cancer.  If the invasive breast cancer spreads from the ducts and lobules but remains within the breast and armpit area, it is called early breast cancer.  The majority of invasive breast cancers are invasive ductal carcinoma (IDC).  Less common than IDC is invasive lobular carcinoma (ILC).

If the breast cancer spreads to the skin, muscles or bones surrounding the chest but not to other parts of the body, it is called locally advanced breast cancer.

If the breast cancer spreads to other parts of the body from the breast area, such as to the bones, lungs, liver, or brain, it is called advanced breast cancer or metastatic breast cancer.

Other less common types of breast cancers include Paget's disease (affects the nipple area), medullary carcinoma (tumor with clearly define borders), sarcoma (forms in supporting breast tissues), and inflammatory breast cancer (skin becomes red and swollen).

Causes and Risk Factors of Breast Cancer

While no one can be certain who will be affected with breast cancer, there are many known causes and risk factors that are associated with the development of breast cancer.  Breast cancer primarily affects women, but it can also affect men.  The incidence of breast cancer increases with age, but it can also affect younger women.  Other factors are genetics and heredity (a family history of breast cancer), late menopause, excess weight and obesity, diabetes, hypertension, high fat diet, oral contraceptives and hormone replacement therapy.

Symptoms of Breast Cancer

The initial symptoms of breast cancer may include a small painless lump in the breast area, a change in the size or shape of the breast, irregular thickening of the breast tissue, any redness, warmth, or dimpling of the skin in the breast area, or nipple retraction.

Diagnosis of Breast Cancer

If a suspicious lump is found in the breast following a physical exam or mammogram, the doctor will want to follow-up with other diagnostic tests to determine if the lump is cancerous.  Ultrasounds and biopsies are recommended diagnostic procedures. Usually the ultrasound is done first because it is the least invasive procedure.  The ultrasound test will create a picture of the breast on a computer using sound waves.  The ultrasound can be used to determine if the lump is a cyst (fluid filled sac) or a solid mass. With a biopsy, a small tissue sample is removed for analysis in the laboratory.  The biopsy test can determine if the sample tissue is breast cancer and if so, what type of breast cancer it is.

Treatment of Breast Cancer

The recommended treatment for breast cancer depends on the type of breast cancer, the stage of breast cancer when it is detected, if the cancer has spread to other parts of the body, and the overall health and condition of the patient. Most treatment focuses on curing the breast cancer, but sometimes treatment can only attempt to slow the cancer growth and relieve the symptoms.

Treatment for breast cancer can be either a local (regional) treatment or a systemic treatment.  Local treatments include surgery and radiation that are used to treat cancer that has not spread from the breast area.  Surgery to remove the tumor is often the primary treatment option for breast cancer.  If the breast cancer has spread, however, treatment relies on systemic treatments (treatment that treats the whole body) such as chemotherapy or hormonal therapy.  Breast cancer treatment may include any one treatment method but it often includes a combination of treatment types.

Prevention of Breast Cancer

While prevention is not guaranteed, there are many steps that a person can take to minimize the chances of developing breast cancer, such as eating healthy, exercising on a regular basis, maintaining a healthy weight, limiting alcohol consumption, and reducing the exposure to hormones, antibiotics and pesticides.

The best advice to women regarding breast cancer focuses on breast awareness and screening for breast cancer.  Screening for breast cancer, which is looking for evidence of the disease before there are any noticeable symptoms, saves lives. The biggest factor in surviving breast cancer is early detection.  If breast cancer is discovered at an early stage there are more treatment options and a better chance of recovery.

Screening methods for breast cancer includes breast self-exams (feeling for unfamiliar lumps or looking for unusual changes in the breast), clinical exams by a doctor or nurse, and mammograms.  The best chance of early detection is to rely on all three screening methods.

General recommendations for breast cancer screening include monthly breast self-exams starting during a woman's twenties (this will help you become aware of the normal look and feel of your breast and help you notice if anything unusual develops), clinical breast exams every three years during a woman's twenties and thirties, annual clinical exams beginning in a woman's forties, and mammograms starting in a woman's forties.

External Resources


National Breast Cancer Foundation

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