Breast Cancer: The Basics

OncoLink Team
Last Modified: July 28, 2016

Breast cancer is caused by breast cells growing out of control. As the number of cells grow, they form into a tumor. There are several types of breast cancer. They are described below.

  • Invasive Ductal Carcinoma
    • Cancer cell develop from the ducts in the breasts.
  • Invasive Lobular Carcinoma
    • Cancer cells develop from the lobes of the breasts.  
  • Ductal Carcinoma In-Situ (DCIS)/Lobular Carcinoma In-Situ (LCIS)
    • Cancerous cells found in breast tissue.
    • Unlikely to spread to other tissues.
    • DCIS cells can become capable of invading breast tissue, and therefore should be treated.
    • LCIS is a marker for increased risk of breast cancer, but does not need to be treated.

Breast cancer that has spread from the breast to another part of the body is called metastatic cancer.

Signs & Symptoms of Breast Cancer

The early stages of breast cancer may not have any symptoms. As the tumor grows in size, it can cause symptoms.

  • Lump or thickening in the breast or underarm
  • Change in size or shape of the breast
  • Nipple discharge or nipple turning inward
  • Redness or scaling of the skin or nipple
  • Ridges or pitting of the breast (looks like an orange peel)

Diagnosis of Breast Cancer

When your healthcare provider finds something abnormal in the breast, they will order some testing. This may include:

  • Diagnostic mammogram (similar to a mammogram, but more pictures are taken)
  • Ultrasound
  • Biopsy, which is sent for pathology

A pathology report summarizes the results of the biopsy and is sent to your healthcare provider. This report is an important part of planning your treatment. You can request a copy of this report for your records.

Staging Breast Cancer

To guide treatment, breast cancer is "staged." The stage is based on:

  • Size and location of the tumor
  • Whether cancer cells are found in the lymph nodes
  • Whether cancer cells are found in other areas of the body

Stage ranges from stage 0 (called carcinoma in situ) to stage IV (tumors that have spread to other areas of the body). The stage and type of breast cancer will help guide your treatment plan.

Treatment

In general, the following treatments are used:

  • Early/Moderate Stage (0-II):
    • In almost all cases, surgery is done to remove as much of the cancer as possible. Surgery can include a lumpectomy (also called breast conserving surgery) or mastectomy, and lymph node biopsy.
    • Most patients will also receive chemotherapy after surgery (called adjuvant therapy) to prevent the cancer from coming back (called recurrence).
    • Radiation therapy is frequently used after breast-conserving surgery to reduce the risk of the cancer coming back.
    • Hormonal therapy may be used if the tumor has positive estrogen and/or progesterone receptors.
    • Biologic therapy may be used if the tumor is positive for HER-2 overexpression.
  • Advanced Breast Cancer (III or IV) or breast cancers that were stage 0-II at diagnosis and have recurred in other parts of the body:
    • Surgery may be used, and can include mastectomy, lumpectomy , lymph node removal, and reconstruction.
    • Chemotherapy is often used in advanced cancer.
    • Targeted therapies are medications that works more specifically against a certain target found on the cancer cells. They are used to treat cancers that are HER2+.
    • Hormonal therapy is used to treat cancers that are estrogen and/or progesterone receptors positive.
    • Radiation therapy can be used in a number of ways for advanced breast cancer including: treatment after mastectomy, radiation to the lymph node area, and to treat tumors that are causing symptoms in other parts of the body.

 

This article is a basic introduction to breast cancer. You can learn more about breast cancer and treatment by using the links below.

All About Breast Cancer

Treatments for Breast Cancer

Surgery: Preparing for Breast Surgery (Videos)

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Click on any of these terms for more related articles

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