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Glossary of Breast Cancer Terms

BreastIn reading about breast cancer (Read about "Breast Cancer") you may come across a number of unfamiliar terms. This glossary, adapted from the National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health, can help you decipher some of them. For additional questions about what these terms might mean in your individual case, of course, ask your doctor.

Abscess: A pocket of pus that forms as the body's defenses attempt to wall off infection-causing germs. (Read about "Microorganisms" "Breast Diseases and Conditions")

Areola: The colored tissue that encircles the nipple.

Aspiration: Removal of fluid from a cyst or cells from a lump, using a needle and syringe.

Atypical hyperplasia: Cells that are both abnormal (atypical) and increased in number. Benign microscopic breast changes known as atypical hyperplasia moderately increase a woman's risk of developing breast cancer. (Read about "Breast Diseases and Conditions")

Average risk (for breast cancer): A measure of the chances of getting breast cancer without the presence of any specific factors known to be associated with the disease.

Benign: Not cancerous; cannot invade neighboring tissues or spread to other parts of the body.

Benign breast changes: Noncancerous changes in the breast. Benign breast conditions can cause pain, lumpiness, and other problems. (Read about "Breast Diseases and Conditions")

Biopsy: The removal of a sample of tissue or cells for examination under a microscope for purposes of diagnosis. (Read about "Biopsy")

BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes: The principal genes that, when altered, indicate an inherited susceptibility to breast cancer and ovarian cancer. These gene mutations are present in 80 to 90 percent of hereditary cases of breast cancer.

Breast density: Glandular tissue in the breast common in younger women, making it difficult for mammography to detect breast cancer. (Read about "Mammograms")

Breast implants: Silicone rubber sacs, which are filled with silicone gel or sterile saline, used for breast reconstruction after mastectomy. (Read about "Plastic Surgery")

BSE: Breast Self-Examination. The American Cancer Society says that women can use BSE to know what is normal for them. (Read about "Breast Self-Examination")

Calcifications: Small deposits of calcium in tissue, which can be seen on mammograms. (Read about "Mammograms")

Cancer: A general name for more than 100 diseases in which abnormal cells grow out of control. Cancer cells can invade and destroy healthy tissues, and they can spread through the bloodstream and the lymphatic system to other parts of the body. (Read about "Cancer: What It Is")

Carcinoma: Cancer that begins in tissues lining or covering the surfaces (epithelial tissues) of organs, glands, or other body structures. Most cancers are carcinomas.

Carcinoma in situ: A group of abnormal cells that remain in the location where they form. They may develop into invasive cancer.

Chemoprevention: The use of drugs or vitamins to prevent cancer in people who have precancerous conditions or a high risk of cancer, or to prevent the recurrence of cancer in people who have already been treated for it. (Read about "Cancer Treatments" "Vitamins & Minerals")

Chromosomes: Structures located in the nucleus of a cell, containing genes. (Read about "Genetics")

Clinical breast exam: A physical examination by a doctor or nurse of the breast, underarm and collarbone area, first on one side, then on the other. (Read about "Cancer Check-ups" "Breast Self-Examination")

Computed tomography (CT) scanning: An imaging technique that uses a computer to organize the information from multiple x-ray views and construct a cross-sectional image of areas inside the body. (Read about "CT Scan - Computerized Tomography")

Computer-aided diagnosis (CAD): the use of special computer programs to scan mammographic images and flag areas that look suspicious.

Core needle biopsy: The use of a small cutting needle to remove a core of tissue for microscopic examination. (Read about "Biopsy")

Cyclic breast changes: Normal tissue changes that occur in response to the changing levels of female hormones during the menstrual cycle. Cyclic breast changes can produce swelling, tenderness and pain.

Cyst: Fluid-filled sac. Most breast cysts are benign. (Read about "Breast Diseases and Conditions")

Diagnostic mammogram: The use of a breast x-ray to evaluate the breasts of a woman who has symptoms of disease such as a lump, or whose screening mammogram shows an abnormality. (Read about "X-rays" "Mammograms")

Digital mammography: A technique for recording x-ray images in computer code, which allows the information to enhance subtle, but potentially significant, changes. (Read about "Mammograms" "X-rays")

Ducts: Channels that carry body fluids. Breast ducts transport milk from the breast's lobules out to the nipple. (Read about "Breast Diseases and Conditions")

Ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS): A non-invasive condition in which abnormal cells are found in the ducts of the breast tissue. DCIS may become invasive cancer.

Excisional biopsy: The surgical removal (excision) of an abnormal area of tissue, usually along with a margin of healthy tissue, for microscopic examination. Excisional biopsies remove the entire lump from the breast. (Read about "Biopsy")

False negative (mammograms): Breast x-rays that miss abnormalities such as cancer when it is present. (Read about "Mammograms" "X-rays")

False positive (mammograms): Breast x-rays that indicate breast abnormalities such as cancer are present when the disease is truly absent. (Read about "Mammograms" "X-rays")

Fat necrosis: Lumps of fatty material that form in response to a bruise or blow to the breast. (Read about "Breast Diseases and Conditions")

Fibroadenoma: Benign breast tumor made up of both structural (fibro) and glandular (adenoma) tissues. (Read about "Breast Diseases and Conditions")

Fibrocystic disease: See Generalized breast lumpiness. (Read about "Breast Diseases and Conditions")

Fine needle aspiration: The use of a slender needle to remove fluid from a cyst or clusters of cells from a solid lump.

Frozen section: A sliver of frozen biopsy tissue. A frozen section provides a quick preliminary diagnosis but is not 100 percent reliable. It is always followed by a permanent section examination by a pathologist. (Read about "Biopsy")

Generalized breast lumpiness: Breast irregularities and lumpiness, commonplace and noncancerous. Sometimes called "fibrocystic disease" or "benign breast disease." (Read about "Breast Diseases and Conditions")

Gene: Segment of a DNA molecule and the fundamental biological unit of heredity.

Genetic change: An alteration in a segment of DNA, which can disturb a gene's behavior and sometimes leads to disease. (Read about "Genetics")

Higher risk (for breast cancer): A measure of the chances of getting breast cancer when factor(s) known to be associated with the disease are present.

Hormone replacement therapy (HRT): Hormone-containing medications taken to offset the symptoms and other effects of the hormone loss that accompanies menopause or surgical removal of the ovaries.

Hormones: Chemicals produced by various glands in the body, which produce specific effects on specific target organs and tissues.

Hyperplasia: Excessive growth of cells. Several types of benign breast conditions involve hyperplasia. (Read about "Breast Diseases and Conditions")

Incisional biopsy: The surgical removal of a portion of an abnormal area of tissue, by cutting into (incising) it, for microscopic examination. (Read about "Biopsy")

Infection: Invasion of body tissues by microorganisms that cause disease such as various bacteria and viruses. (Read about "Microorganisms" "Breast Diseases and Conditions")

Infiltrating cancer: Cancer that has spread to nearby tissue, lymph nodes under the arm, or other parts of the body. (Same as Invasive cancer.)

Inflammation: The body's protective response to injury (including infection). Inflammation is marked by heat, redness, swelling, pain and loss of function. (Read about "Breast Diseases and Conditions")

Intraductal papilloma: A small wart-like growth that projects into a breast duct. (Read about "Breast Diseases and Conditions")

Invasive cancer: Cancer that has spread to nearby tissue, lymph nodes under the arm, or other parts of the body. (Same as Infiltrating cancer.)

Laser beam scanning: a technology being studied in research for breast cancer detection that shines a laser beam through the breast and records the image produced, using a special camera.

Lobes, lobules, bulbs: Milk-producing tissues of the breast. Each of the breast's 15 to 20 lobes branches into smaller lobules and each lobule ends in scores of tiny bulbs. Milk originates in the bulbs and is carried by ducts to the nipple. (Read about "Breast Diseases and Conditions")

Localization biopsy: The use of mammography to locate tissue containing an abnormality that can be detected only on mammograms, so it can be removed for microscopic examination. (Read about "Mammograms" "Biopsy")

Lumpectomy: Surgery to remove only the cancerous breast lump and surrounding benign tissue; usually followed by radiation therapy. (Read about "Radiation Therapy")

Lymphatic system: The tissues and organs that produce, store, and transport cells that fight infection and disease.

Macrocalcifications: Coarse calcium deposits. They are most likely due to aging, old injuries, or inflammations and usually are associated with benign conditions. (Read about "Breast Diseases and Conditions")

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): A technique that uses a powerful magnet linked to a computer to create detailed pictures of areas inside the body. (Read about "MRI - Magnetic Resonance Imaging")

Malignancy: State of being cancerous. Malignant tumors can invade surrounding tissues and spread to other parts of the body.

Mammary duct ectasia: A benign breast condition in which ducts beneath the nipple become dilated and sometimes inflamed, and which can cause pain and nipple discharge. (Read about "Breast Diseases and Conditions")

Mammogram: An x-ray of the breast. (Read about "Mammograms" "X-rays")

Mammography: The examination of breast tissue using x-rays. (Read about "Mammograms" "X-rays")

Mastectomy: Surgery to remove the breast (or as much of the breast tissue as possible).

Mastitis: Infection of the breast. Mastitis is most often seen in nursing mothers. (Read about "Breast Diseases and Conditions")

Menopause: The time when a woman's monthly menstrual periods cease. Menopause is sometimes called the "change of life." (Read about "Menopause")

Menstrual cycle: The monthly cycle of discharge, during a woman's reproductive years, of blood and tissues from the lining cells of the uterus. (Read about "Menstrual Disorders")

Microcalcifications: Tiny deposits of calcium in the breast, which can show up on a mammogram. Certain patterns of microcalcifications are sometimes a sign of breast cancer.(Read about "Mammograms" "Breast Cancer")

Mutation: A change in the number, arrangement or molecular sequence of a gene.

Needle biopsy: Use of a needle to extract cells or bits of tissue for microscopic examination. (Read about "Biopsy")

Nipple discharge: Fluid coming from the nipple. (Read about "Breast Diseases and Conditions")

Nonpalpable cancer: Cancer in breast tissue that can be seen on mammograms but that cannot be felt. (Read about "Mammograms")

One-step procedure: Biopsy and surgical treatment combined into a single operation. (Read about "Biopsy")

Osteoporosis: An abnormal condition of bone mineral loss that causes a decrease in bone density and an enlargement of bone spaces, producing bone fragility. Certain treatments for breast cancer can impact a woman's risk of developing osteoporosis. Osteoporosis increases the risk of bone fractures. (Read about "Osteoporosis" "Bone Fractures")

Palpation: Use of the fingers to press body surfaces, so as to feel tissues and organs underneath. Palpating the breast for lumps is part of a physical breast examination.

Pathologist: A doctor who diagnoses disease by studying cells and tissues under a microscope.

Permanent section: Biopsy tissue specially prepared and mounted on slides so that it can be examined under a microscope by a pathologist. (Read about "Biopsy")

Phytochemicals: Naturally occurring chemicals found in plants that may be important nutrients for reducing a person's cancer risk.

Positron emission tomography (PET scanning): A technique that uses signals emitted by radioactive tracers to construct images of the distribution of the tracers in the human body. (Read about "PET - Positron Emission Tomography")

Prophylactic mastectomy: Surgery to remove a breast that is not known to contain breast cancer, for the purpose of reducing an individual's cancer risk, as in women with the BRCA1 or BRAC2 mutation.

Rad: A unit of measure for radiation. It stands for radiation absorbed dose. Now usually expressed as Gray units (Gy). One Gy equals 100 rad. (Read about "Radiation Therapy")

Radiation: Energy carried by waves or by streams of particles. Various forms of radiation can be used in low doses to diagnose disease and in high doses to treat disease. (Read about "X-rays" "Cancer Treatments")

Radiologist: A doctor with special training in the use of diagnostic imaging such as CT, MRI, PET and ultrasound, to image body tissues and to treat disease. (Read about "CT Scan - Computerized Tomography" "MRI - Magnetic Resonance Imaging" "PET - Positron Emission Tomography" "Ultrasound Imaging")

Risk: A measure of the likelihood of some uncertain or random event with negative consequences for human life or health.

Risk factors (for cancer): Conditions or agents that increase a person's chances of getting cancer. Risk factors do not necessarily cause cancer; rather, they are indicators, statistically associated with an increase in likelihood. (Read about "Cancer Risks")

Sclerosing adenosis: A benign breast disease that involves the excessive growth of tissues in the breast's lobules. (Read about "Breast Diseases and Conditions")

Screening mammogram: Breast x-ray used to look for signs of disease such as cancer in people who are symptom-free. (Read about "Mammograms" "X-rays")

Sonogram: The image produced by ultrasound. (Read about "Ultrasound Imaging")

Specimen x-ray: An x-ray of tissue that has been surgically removed (surgical specimen). (Read about "X-rays")

Stereotactic localization biopsy: A technique that employs three-dimensional x-ray to pinpoint a specific target area. It is used in conjunction with needle biopsy of nonpalpable breast abnormalities. (Read about "X-rays" "Biopsy")

Surgical biopsy: The surgical removal of tissue for microscopic examination and diagnosis. Surgical biopsies can be either excisional or incisional. (See Excisional biopsy and Incisional biopsy.) (Read about "Biopsy")

Tamoxifen: an anti-estrogen drug that has been used to treat breast cancer and can be used in some women as a possible preventive strategy. Women on this medication should have regular ultrasounds (Read about "Ultrasound Imaging") of the endometrium (lining of the uterus) because of potential changes there.

Tumor: An abnormal growth of tissue. Tumors may be either benign or cancerous. (Read about "Breast Diseases and Conditions")

Tumor markers: Proteins (either amounts or unique variants) made by altered genes in cancer cells that are involved in the progression of the disease.

Two-step procedure: Biopsy and treatment done in two stages, usually a week or two apart. (Read about "Biopsy")

Ultrasound: The use of sound waves to produce images of body tissues. (Read about "Ultrasound Imaging")

X-ray: A high-energy form of radiation. X-rays form an image of body structures by traveling through the body and striking a sheet of film. Breast x-rays are called mammograms. (Read about "X-rays" "Mammograms")

Used with permission of the National Institutes of Health.

Related Information:

    Breast Cancer

    Breast Self-Examination


    Cancer: What It Is

    Cancer Treatments

    Cancer Risk

    Cancer Support

    Cancer Check-ups

All Concept Communications material is provided for information only and is neither advice nor a substitute for proper medical care. Consult a qualified healthcare professional who understands your particular history for individual concerns.

© Concept Communications Media Group LLC

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By printing and/or reading this article, you agree that you accept all terms and conditions of use, as specified online.

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