General Information About Breast Cancer
Key Points for This Section
Breast cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the breast.
The breast is made up of lobes and ducts. Each breast has 15 to 20 sections called lobes, which have many smaller sections called lobules. Lobules end in dozens of tiny bulbs that can produce milk. The lobes, lobules, and bulbs are linked by thin tubes called ducts.
Each breast also contains blood vessels and lymph vessels. The lymph vessels carry an almost colorless fluid called lymph. Lymph vessels lead to organs called lymph nodes. Lymph nodes are small bean-shaped structures that are found throughout the body. They filter substances in lymph and help fight infection and disease. Clusters of lymph nodes are found near the breast in the axilla (under the arm), above the collarbone, and in the chest.
Breast cancer is the second leading cause of death from cancer in American women.
Breast cancer occurs more often in white women than in black women. However, black women are more likely than white women to die from the disease.
Breast cancer occurs in men also, but the number of cases is small.
Health history can affect the risk of breast cancer.
Anything that increases your chance of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will get cancer; not having risk factors doesn't mean that you will not get cancer. Talk with your doctor if you think you may be at risk for breast cancer.
Older age is the main risk factor for most cancers. The chance of getting cancer increases as you get older. Other risk factors for breast cancer include the following:
- A family history of breast cancer in a first-degree relative (mother, daughter, or sister) .
- Inherited changes in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes or in other genes that increase the risk of breast cancer.
- Drinking alcohol.
- Breast tissue that is dense on a mammogram.
- Exposure of breast tissue to estrogen made by the body:
- Taking hormones such as estrogen combined with progestin for symptoms of menopause.
- Taking oral contraceptives ("the pill").
- A personal history of invasive breast cancer, ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), or lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS).
- A personal history of benign (noncancer) breast disease.
- Being white.
- Treatment with radiation therapy to the breast/chest.
NCI's Breast Cancer Risk Assessment Tool uses a woman's risk factors to estimate her risk for breast cancer during the next five years and up to age 90. This online tool is meant to be used by a health care provider. For more information on breast cancer risk, call 1-800-4-CANCER.