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.
- Health history can affect the risk of developing breast cancer.
- Breast cancer is sometimes caused by inherited gene mutations (changes).
- Signs of breast cancer include a lump or change in the breast.
- Tests that examine the breasts are used to detect (find) and diagnose breast cancer.
- If cancer is found, tests are done to study the cancer cells.
- Certain factors affect prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options.
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 make milk. The lobes, lobules, and bulbs are linked by thin tubes called ducts.
Each breast also has 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 a fluid called 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.
The most common type of breast cancer is ductal carcinoma, which begins in the cells of the ducts. Cancer that begins in the lobes or lobules is called lobular carcinoma and is more often found in both breasts than are other types of breast cancer. Inflammatory breast cancer is an uncommon type of breast cancer in which the breast is warm, red, and swollen.
See the following PDQ summaries for more information:
Health history can affect the risk of developing 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. Risk factors for breast cancer include the following:
- A family history (first-degree relative, such as mother, daughter, or sister) of breast cancer.
- Inherited changes in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes or in other genes that increase the risk of breast cancer.
- Drinking alcoholic beverages.
- Breast tissue that is dense on a mammogram.
- Estrogen (made in the body)
- Menstruating at an early age.
- Older age at first birth or never having given birth.
- Taking hormones such as estrogen combined with progestin for symptoms of menopause.
- Taking oral contraceptives ("the pill").
- Not getting enough exercise.
- 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.
Breast cancer is sometimes caused by inherited gene mutations (changes).
The genes in cells carry the hereditary information that is received from a person’s parents. Hereditary breast cancer makes up about 5% to 10% of all breast cancer. Some mutated genes related to breast cancer are more common in certain ethnic groups.
Women who have certain gene mutations, such as a BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation, have an increased risk of breast cancer. Also, women who have had breast cancer in one breast have an increased risk of developing breast cancer in the other breast. These women also have an increased risk of ovarian cancer, and may have an increased risk of other cancers. Men who have a mutated gene related to breast cancer also have an increased risk of this disease. For more information, see the PDQ summary on Male Breast Cancer Treatment.
There are tests that can detect (find) mutated genes. These genetic tests are sometimes done for members of families with a high risk of cancer. See the PDQ summary on Genetics of Breast and Gynecologic Cancers for more information.
Signs of breast cancer include a lump or change in the breast.
- A lump or thickening in or near the breast or in the underarm area.
- A change in the size or shape of the breast.
- A dimple or puckering in the skin of the breast.
- A nipple turned inward into the breast.
- Fluid, other than breast milk, from the nipple, especially if it's bloody.
- Scaly, red, or swollen skin on the breast, nipple, or areola (the dark area of skin that is around the nipple).
- Dimples in the breast that look like the skin of an orange, called peau d’orange.
Tests that examine the breasts are used to detect (find) and diagnose breast cancer.
A doctor should be seen if changes in the breast are noticed. The following tests and procedures may be used:
- Physical exam and history : An exam of the body to check general signs of health, including checking for signs of disease, such as lumps or anything else that seems unusual. A history of the patient’s health habits and past illnesses and treatments will also be taken.
- Clinical breast exam (CBE): An exam of the breast by a doctor or other health professional. The doctor will carefully feel the breasts and under the arms for lumps or anything else that seems unusual.
- Mammogram: An x-ray of the breast.
- Ultrasound exam: A procedure in which high-energy sound waves (ultrasound) are bounced off internal tissues or organs and make echoes. The echoes form a picture of body tissues called a sonogram. The picture can be printed to be looked at later.
- MRI (magnetic resonance imaging): A procedure that uses a magnet, radio waves, and a computer to make a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body. This procedure is also called nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (NMRI).
- Blood chemistry studies : A procedure in which a blood sample is checked to measure the amounts of certain substances released into the blood by organs and tissues in the body. An unusual (higher or lower than normal) amount of a substance can be a sign of disease in the organ or tissue that makes it.
- Biopsy : The removal of cells or tissues so they can be viewed under a microscope by a pathologist to check for signs of cancer. If a lump in the breast is found, the doctor may need to remove a small piece of the lump. Four types of biopsies are as follows:
If cancer is found, tests are done to study the cancer cells.
Decisions about the best treatment are based on the results of these tests. The tests give information about:
- how quickly the cancer may grow.
- how likely it is that the cancer will spread through the body.
- how well certain treatments might work.
- how likely the cancer is to recur (come back).
Tests include the following:
- Estrogen and progesterone receptor test : A test to measure the amount of estrogen and progesterone (hormones) receptors in cancer tissue. If there are more estrogen and progesterone receptors than normal, the cancer may grow more quickly. The test results show whether treatment to block estrogen and progesterone may stop the cancer from growing.
- Human epidermal growth factor type 2 receptor (HER2/neu) test: A laboratory test to measure how many HER2/neu genes there are and how much HER2/neu protein is made in a sample of tissue. If there are more HER2/neu genes or higher levels of HER2/neu protein than normal, the cancer may grow more quickly and is more likely to spread to other parts of the body. The cancer may be treated with drugs that target the HER2/neu protein, such as trastuzumab and lapatinib.
- Multigene tests: Tests in which samples of tissue are studied to look at the activity of many genes at the same time. These tests may help predict whether cancer will spread to other parts of the body or recur (come back).
- Oncotype DX: This test helps predict whether stage I or stage II breast cancer that is estrogen receptor positive and node-negative will spread to other parts of the body. If the risk of the cancer spreading is high, chemotherapy may be given to lower the risk.
- MammaPrint: This test helps predict whether stage I or stage II breast cancer that is node-negative will spread to other parts of the body. If the risk of the cancer spreading is high, chemotherapy may be given to lower the risk.
Certain factors affect prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options.
- The stage of the cancer (the size of the tumor and whether it is in the breast only or has spread to lymph nodes or other places in the body).
- The type of breast cancer.
- Estrogen receptor and progesterone receptor levels in the tumor tissue.
- Human epidermal growth factor type 2 receptor (HER2/neu) levels in the tumor tissue.
- Whether the tumor tissue is triple-negative (cells that do not have estrogen receptors, progesterone receptors, or high levels of HER2/neu).
- How fast the tumor is growing.
- How likely the tumor is to recur (come back).
- A woman’s age, general health, and menopausal status (whether a woman is still having menstrual periods).
- Whether the cancer has just been diagnosed or has recurred (come back).