What is breast cancer?
Breast cancer is a malignant (cancerous) tumor that starts from cells of the breast.
Where within the breast does breast cancer occur?
A woman’s breast has 15 to 20 sections called lobes. Within each lobe are many smaller lobules that end in dozens of tiny bulbs that can produce milk. The lobes, lobules and bulbs are all linked by thin tubes called ducts. These ducts lead to the nipple in the center of a dark area of skin called the areola. Cancer can begin in any of these areas.
What are the types of breast cancer
Understanding key words as they relate to breast cancer can be a challenge. Here are the most common types of breast cancer:
- Ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS): According to the National Institute for Health (NIH), this is the most common type of noninvasive breast cancer. DCIS means that the cancer is confined to the ducts. It has not spread through the walls of the ducts into the tissue of the breast. This is early-stage breast cancer and is sometimes considered pre-cancer, although it can develop into invasive breast cancer if not treated.
- Lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS): This condition begins in the milk-making glands but does not go through the wall of the lobules. This is early-stage breast cancer, sometimes considered pre-cancer, and it can increase a woman's risk of cancer in either breast.
- Invasive ductal carcinoma (IDC): This is the most common invasive breast cancer. It starts in a milk passage or duct and invades the tissue of the breast. From there it can spread to other parts of the body.
- Invasive lobular carcinoma (ILC): This cancer starts in the milk glands or lobules. It can spread to other parts of the body. About 10 percent of invasive breast cancers are this type.
- Other types of breast cancer: There are other, less common types of breast cancer. For example, inflammatory breast cancer is a rare type of late-stage breast cancer in which the breast looks red and swollen because cancer cells block the lymph vessels in the skin of the breast.
What are the risk factors for breast cancer?
The American Cancer Society (ACS) and the National Institute of Health (NIH) have indicated several factors that may put a woman at a higher risk of developing breast cancer:
Age: The risk of developing breast cancer increases with age. Nearly 77 of new diagnoses of breast cancer each year are in women over the age of 50.
Family History: Women are at a higher risk of developing breast cancer if a close relative – especially a mother or a sister – has had the disease. The risk is higher if her family member got breast cancer before age 40. Having other relatives with breast cancer (in either her mother's or father's family) may also increase a woman's risk.
Personal Medical History: Women with a history of breast cancer have a much higher risk of redeveloping breast cancer.
- Women with breast cancer in one breast have a three- to four-times higher risk of developing a new cancer in the other breast.
- Women with a history of some types of benign breast growths are at a higher risk.
- Women with a previous breast biopsy showing atypical hyperplasia lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS) are at an increased risk of developing breast cancer.
Reproductive and Menstrual History: Women with the following reproductive and menstrual histories also may have a higher risk of developing breast cancer:
- Women who had their first menstrual period before age 12 are at an increased risk of breast cancer.
- The older a woman is when she has her first child, the greater her chance of breast cancer.
- Women who went through menopause after age 55 are at an increased risk of breast cancer.
- Women who never had children are at an increased risk of breast cancer.
- Women who take menopausal hormone therapy with estrogen plus progestin after menopause also appear to have an increased risk of breast cancer.
Breast Density: The National Cancer Institute (NCI) says cancer is more likely to occur in breasts that have more dense tissue than in breasts with a lot of fatty tissue. In addition, when breasts are dense, it is more difficult for doctors to see abnormal areas on a mammogram.
Estrogen: According to NCI, evidence suggests that the longer a woman is exposed to estrogen (estrogen made by the body, taken as a drug or delivered by a patch), the more likely she is to develop breast cancer.
Radiation Exposure: NCI says women whose breasts were exposed to radiation during radiation therapy before age 30, especially those who were treated with radiation for Hodgkin's lymphoma, are at an increased risk for developing breast cancer.
Lifestyle: NIH cites studies that have linked the use of alcohol with a higher risk of breast cancer. In addition, some studies have linked obesity with a potentially higher risk. Other studies have indicated that a healthy lifestyle, including exercise and a diet low in fat - especially saturated fat - could be linked with a reduced rate of breast cancer.
Genetic: Research also continues into genetic mutations, specifically mutations in the genes BRCA1 and BRCA2, which have been linked to an increased risk of developing breast, ovarian and colon cancer.
What are the signs and symptoms of breast cancer?
Early breast cancer is usually painless and often goes unnoticed. However, there are several physical signs that can help in the early detection of breast cancer.
Check for these symptoms during your monthly self breast exam:
• A change in how the breast or nipple feels
• A lump or thickening in or near the breast or in the underarm area
• A change in how the breast or nipple looks
• A change in the size or shape of the breast
• A nipple turned inward into the breast (if it’s a change from normal appearance)
• The skin of the breast, areola or nipple may be scaly, red, or swollen. It may have ridges or pitting so that it looks like the skin of an orange.
• Nipple discharge (fluid) that spontaneously appears
When should I get a mammogram?
Recommendations have changed in recent years, and several medical associations have different guidelines! The Ann Baroco Center follows the American College of Radiology's guidelines, which recommend women with an average risk of breast cancer undergo a baseline mammogram and an annual exam starting at age 40. Learn more about our mammography guidelines here.
Where can I learn more about breast cancer?
Visit our Online Health Library for more information about breast cancer.