Understanding breast cancer
Did you know our bodies are constantly growing and replacing cells? The cell growth cycle works on autopilot to produce healthy cells, but sometimes certain genes can mutate. If that happens, cells may grow out of control and form a tumor. Those tumors can either be noncancerous or cancerous. If a cancerous tumor grows in breast tissue, it’s called breast cancer. While statistics suggest that 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer, the rates of diagnosis and death continue to decrease.1 Better screening, early detection and increased awareness have all played their part to help bring those numbers down.1 Thinking about the possibility of getting breast cancer may be scary, but the more knowledge you have, the better chances you may have for catching potential cancers early and making informed decisions about your health.
What are the types of breast cancer?
Knowing your type of breast cancer is important for deciding which treatment option might work best. Where the cancer starts and if it has spread are two factors that may help determine which kind it is. The two main categories of breast cancer are invasive (cancer that has spread to nearby tissues outside the breast) and noninvasive (cancer that stays within the breast tissue). Here’s a list of the most common types of breast cancer:2
Invasive breast cancers
- Invasive ductal carcinoma: Starts in a milk duct and grows into other parts of the breast (and perhaps other parts of the body). This is the most common type of breast cancer.
- Invasive lobular carcinoma: Starts in the lobules and spreads to nearby tissues (and perhaps other parts of the body). This is the second most common type.
- Inflammatory breast cancer: Starts in the ducts or lobules and spreads faster than other types of breast cancer. It can cause redness and swelling on the surface of the breast — and could be mistaken for a breast infection.
- Paget’s disease of the breast: Starts in the skin of the nipple and areola, and causes tumor cells called Paget cells. (This type is less common.)
- Angiosarcoma of the breast: Starts in the lining of lymph or blood vessels. This type is rare and aggressive, and it's most common in people over 70. Complications from radiation therapy to the breast can be the cause.
- Phyllodes tumor: Starts in the connective breast tissue. This rare tumor is most often found in women in their 40s. People with a certain genetic condition called Li-Fraumeni syndrome may be at a higher risk.
Noninvasive (in situ) breast cancers
- Ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS): Starts in a duct and stays within the breast tissue. This type of breast cancer makes up about 20% of newly diagnosed cases.
- Lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS): This is when abnormal cells grow inside the lobules and stay there without spreading. These clumps of cells may not be cancerous, but they do increase your chance of invasive breast cancer, so you and your care team should keep a close eye on it.
Breast cancer screening technology keeps getting better and better. Regular checkups may help you stay ahead of (and catch) anything suspicious. It’s important to know that breast cancer screening and diagnosis are two different things. Mammograms are a routine check on your tissue, while an ultrasound or MRI produce a more detailed image of your breasts once your doctor spots a tumor. The only way to truly diagnose breast cancer is through a tissue biopsy.
A breast tissue biopsy is a test that takes a sample of tissue or fluid from your breast. Then, a specialist examines those cells under a microscope to determine whether or not it’s cancer — and if so, what kind.3
Breast cancer signs and symptoms can look different for each person. You know your body best, so if you notice something unusual, visit your doctor right away. They might do a quick breast exam or recommend a mammogram as a first step to figuring out what’s causing your symptoms. Early breast cancer signs in women include things like:4
- A marble-like lump in your breast or underarm that doesn’t go away
- Swelling in your armpit or near your collarbone
- Pain and tenderness in either breast
- A flat or indented spot on your breast
- Changes in breast size, color or texture
- Unusual nipple discharge (could be clear, bloody or another color)
While there’s really no list of breast cancer causes, we do know there are certain risk factors that may increase your chance of being diagnosed. Common risk factors for breast cancer include:5
- Being female
- Older age
- Personal or family history of breast cancer
- Inherited genes (like Li-Fraumeni syndrome)
- Radiation exposure
- Starting menopause or having a child at an older age
- Having never been pregnant
- Postmenopausal hormone therapy
Just like you might get your dad’s dimples or your mom’s green eyes, you also inherit the genes (good and bad) that impact your overall health. So, if anyone in your immediate family has had a serious health condition, you might be at a greater risk for being diagnosed with the same thing. That’s also true for breast cancer. In fact, if your mom, sister or daughter has been diagnosed with breast cancer, your risk doubles. If that’s the case, you could benefit from earlier and more frequent screenings.
Another option is to get tested for common genes that are linked to breast cancer. If you have one of those genes, you could take a more aggressive approach and look into protective (preventive) surgery, like a mastectomy or oophorectomy. These surgeries may greatly reduce your chance of getting breast cancer, but they may not eliminate it. Talk with your doctor about your family history and the best approach for managing or reducing your risk.6
Depending on the type and severity of breast cancer, treatment options range from therapies to surgery. That’s why it’s so important to know exactly what kind of tumor you may have before exploring your options. Here’s a look at common breast cancer treatments:7
- Surgery: A lumpectomy removes the tumor (often the first step in treatment).
- Radiation therapy: This uses high-energy waves to kill cancer cells. It’s often used after surgery or if the cancer has spread.
- Chemotherapy: This uses medicine to kill cancer cells. It can be used before surgery to help shrink the tumor and after as a way to kill any leftover cancer cells.
- Hormone therapy: This uses medicine to prevent hormones (like estrogen) from helping cancer cells grow. Think of estrogen like fertilizer and cancer cells like flowers. If hormones can’t attach to cancer cells, they won’t be able to grow.
- Targeted therapy: This uses medicine to target certain cancer cells and stop them from growing. For example, it can target specific proteins that cause cancer to grow and then block them so they can’t affect the cell.
- Immunotherapy: This approach works a little like a vaccine — but for breast cancer. It may help your body recognize and fight off cancer cells.
Who should I see if I’m concerned about breast cancer?
If you found a suspicious lump near your breast or you have other concerns about your risk level, visit your primary care provider (the doctor or provider you might see for your yearly exam). Bring a list of your symptoms, health history and questions. If you’ve had screenings done in the past, like a mammogram, have those images sent to your primary clinic before your appointment. Depending on how your conversation goes, your doctor may order more imaging tests, or refer you to a breast cancer specialist.
- Breast Cancer Facts nationalbreastcancer.org, 2020.
- Types of Breast Cancer cancercenter.com, 2021.
- Biopsy nationalbreastcancer.org, 2020.
- Breast Cancer Symptoms and Early Warning Signs webmd.com, 2020.
- Breast cancer- Symptoms and causes mayoclinic.org, 2020.
- Breast Cancer Risk Factors: Family History breastcancer.org, 2021.
- Treatments for Breaset Cancer webmd.com, 2021.