Breast Cancer-most diagnosed cancer in women

Breast cancer is a malignant tumor that starts in the cells of the breast. A malignant tumor is a group of cancer cells that can grow into (invade) surrounding tissues or spread (metastasize) to distant areas of the body. The disease occurs almost entirely in women, but men can get it, too.

Most breast cancers begin in the cells that line the ducts (ductal cancers). Some begin in the cells that line the lobules (lobular cancers), while a small number start in other tissues.

The normal breast

To understand breast cancer, it helps to have some basic knowledge about the normal structure of the breasts, shown in the diagram below.

The female breast is made up mainly of lobules (milk-producing glands), ducts (tiny tubes that carry the milk from the lobules to the nipple), and stroma (fatty tissue and connective tissue surrounding the ducts and lobules, blood vessels, and lymphatic vessels).

Widespread use of screening mammograms has increased the number of breast cancers found before they cause any symptoms. Still, some breast cancers are not found by mammogram, either because the test was not done or because, even under ideal conditions, mammograms do not find every breast cancer.

The lymph (lymphatic) system of the breast

The lymph system is important to understand because it is one way breast cancers can spread. This system has several parts.

Lymph nodes are small, bean-shaped collections of immune system cells (cells that are important in fighting infections) that are connected by lymphatic vessels. Lymphatic vessels are like small veins, except that they carry a clear fluid called lymph (instead of blood) away from the breast. Lymph contains tissue fluid and waste products, as well as immune system cells. Breast cancer cells can enter lymphatic vessels and begin to grow in lymph nodes.

Most lymphatic vessels in the breast connect to lymph nodes under the arm (axillary nodes). Some lymphatic vessels connect to lymph nodes inside the chest (internal mammary nodes) and either above or below the collarbone (supraclavicular or infraclavicular nodes).

If the cancer cells have spread to lymph nodes, there is a higher chance that the cells could have also gotten into the bloodstream and spread (metastasized) to other sites in the body. The more lymph nodes with breast cancer cells, the more likely it is that the cancer may be found in other organs as well. Because of this, finding cancer in one or more lymph nodes often affects the treatment plan. Still, not all women with cancer cells in their lymph nodes develop metastases, and some women can have no cancer cells in their lymph nodes and later develop metastases.

Benign breast lumps

Most breast lumps are not cancerous (benign). Still, some may need to be biopsied (sampled and viewed under a microscope) to prove they are not cancer.

Fibrosis and cysts

Most lumps turn out to be caused by fibrosis and/or cysts, benign changes in the breast tissue that happen in many women at some time in their lives. (This is sometimes called fibrocystic changes and used to be called fibrocystic disease.) Fibrosis is the formation of scar-like (fibrous) tissue, and cysts are fluid-filled sacs. These conditions are most often diagnosed by a doctor based on symptoms, such as breast lumps, swelling, and tenderness or pain. These symptoms tend to be worse just before a woman’s menstrual period is about to begin. Her breasts may feel lumpy and, sometimes, she may notice a clear or slightly cloudy nipple discharge.

Fibroadenomas and intraductal papillomas

Benign breast tumors such as fibroadenomas or intraductal papillomas are abnormal growths, but they are not cancerous and do not spread outside the breast to other organs. They are not life threatening.

Still, some benign breast conditions are important because women with these conditions have a higher risk of developing breast cancer. For more information see “What are the risk factors for breast cancer?” and our information on Non-cancerous Breast Conditions.

This information refers only to breast cancer in women. For information on breast cancer in men, see Breast Cancer in Men.

Signs and symptoms of breast cancer

The most common symptom of breast cancer is a new lump or mass. A painless, hard mass that has irregular edges is more likely to be cancerous, but breast cancers can be tender, soft, or rounded. They can even be painful. For this reason, it is important to have any new breast mass or lump or breast change checked by a health care professional experienced in diagnosing breast diseases.

Other possible symptoms of breast cancer include:

  • Swelling of all or part of a breast (even if no distinct lump is felt)
  • Skin irritation or dimpling
  • Breast or nipple pain
  • Nipple retraction (turning inward)
  • Redness, scaliness, or thickening of the nipple or breast skin
  • Nipple discharge (other than breast milk)

Sometimes a breast cancer can spread to lymph nodes under the arm or around the collar-bone and cause a lump or swelling there, even before the original tumor in the breast tissue is large enough to be felt. Swollen lymph nodes should also be reported to your doctor.

Although any of these symptoms can be caused by things other than breast cancer, if you have them, they should be reported to your doctor so that he or she can find the cause.

American Cancer Society ACS 
What Can I Do to Reduce My Risk of Breast Cancer?

Many factors can influence your breast cancer risk, and most women who develop breast cancer do not have any known risk factors or a history of the disease in their families. However, you can help lower your risk of breast cancer in the following ways—

Although breast cancer screening cannot prevent breast cancer, it can help find breast cancer early, when it is easier to treat. Talk to your doctor about which breast cancer screening tests are right for you, and when you should have them.

If you have a family history of breast cancer or inherited changes in your BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, you may have a higher breast cancer risk. Talk to your doctor about these ways of reducing your risk—

  • Antiestrogens or other medicines that block or decrease estrogen in your body.
  • Surgery to reduce your risk of breast cancer
    • Prophylactic (preventive) mastectomy (removal of breast tissue).
    • Prophylactic (preventive) salpingo-oophorectomy (removal of the ovaries and fallopian tubes).

It is important that you know your family history and talk to your doctor about screening and other ways you can lower your risk. For more information about breast cancer prevention, visit Breast Cancer (PDQ): Prevention.

 Center for Disease Control and Prevention

Breast cancer is the most common cancer among women of all races. Learn the lifestyle risks for breast cancer.

Patricia, survivor “During chemo the smell of any food cooking turned my stomach and I did not feel good enough to stand and make a salad  (I live alone.) Helping those who are alone by bringing them food with no aroma once in a while- even a cold pizza- could make a big difference.” (From the Susan G. Komen website)

Many years ago, I had a next door neighbor who was diagnosed with cancer.  I spoke with his wife and asked her if I could bring the family dinner on the days that her husband had chemo.  On those days, I made double the amount of food for our evening meal and took half over to their family.  Each person and family experiencing cancer needs personalized support!

BreastC

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