Breast Cancer

Breast cancer is caused by abnormal, uncontrolled growth of cells in the breast tissue. As in all other forms of cancer, these cells fail to respond to normal growth and developmental controls - as a result, they continue to grow and divide into an abnormal mass called a tumor.

False-color SEM of breast cancer cell
Scanning Electron Microscopy of breast cancer cell.

There are several types of breast cancers, the most common of which is called infiltrating ductal cancer. This type of cancer affects about 80% of all breast cancer patients, and is caused by cancerous growth in the milk ducts.

Other types of breast cancer include lobular carcinoma and inflammatory breast cancer.

Stages of Breast Cancer

Breast cancer is classified into stages, depending on the extent of spread and growth of the tumor:

  • Stage 0
    Prior to tumor growth, abnormal cells begin to show pre-cancerous changes (also called in situ changes). Here, the cells remain localized and is not yet invasive.
    Early treatment of cancer at this stage offers the best chance of recovery.

  • Stage I
    Invasive growth begins - the tumor increases in size, but does not yet spread to the lymph nodes.

  • Stage II and Stage III
    Invasive tumor that may have spread to the lymph nodes and tissues nearby the breast.

  • Stage IV
    Invasive cancer that metastasized or has spread beyond tissues nearby the breast. The tumor may spread to lymph nodes near the neck, lungs, brain, liver, and other tissues.

Commonly, some doctors often describe cancers in terms of early (Stage 0 to II), later (Stage II if many lymph nodes are affected and Stage III), and advanced (IV) stages to their patients.

Symptoms of Breast Cancer

The symptoms of breast cancer include:

  • A single, painless lump in the breast
  • Breast pain
  • Rawness or itching of the nipple
  • Discharge from the nipple
  • Redness or swelling of the breast
  • Change in breast shape or size
  • Stippling or appearance of orange peel look (peau d'orange) in the breast skin.
Breast cancer lump shown in a mammogram
Colored mammogram showing breast cancer lump

Who Gets Breast Cancer?

Breast cancer is the most common form of cancer in women. It is also the second leading cause of death (the first is lung cancer) in women. In 2004, it is estimated that about 216,000 new cases of invasive breast cancer and about 60,000 new cases of non-invasive cancer are diagnosed in the United States.

The chance of developing breast cancer increases with age. Other risk factors include genetic inheritance, alcohol use, sedentary lifestyle and obesity.

Although rare, breast cancer can also occur in men. When it occurs in men, this cancer tends to be very aggressive and difficult to treat.


Early detection and treatment of breast cancer are crucial, therefore women are strongly recommended to perform regular breast exam. For those between the ages of 50 and 69, yearly mammography exam is generally recommended.

If you detect a lump during breast exam, contact your doctor immediately.

Scientific evidence suggests that the risk of this cancer increases with alcohol use, sedentary lifestyle, and obesity especially if you have a family history of breast cancer. It is highly recommended that women exercise regularly, limit alcohol use, avoid tobacco, as well as maintain a healthy and ideal body weight to reduce the risk of developing this disease.

What if it Occurs Before Menopause?

Pre-menopausal breast cancer tends to be :

  • Fast-growing
  • More aggressive
  • Quicker to metastasize or spread to other locations
  • More likely to occur in both breasts, instead of just one
  • Estrogen receptor negative
    This means that pre-menopausal breast cancer is less likely to respond to anti-estrogen medications, such as tamoxifen.

Because of the abscence of estrogen receptor, chemotherapy and surgery are the two remaining treatment options for most cases of pre-menopausal breast cancer.

Breast Cancer Treatment

Treatments for breast cancer include:

  • Antiestrogen medications
    Estrogen-receptor positive cancer cells can be treated with antiestrogen medications, such as tamoxifen. Recently, newer class of drugs called aromatase inhibitors, such as Arimidex and Femara, are begining to replace tamoxifen as they have less side effects.

  • Anti-HER2 receptors medication
    A newer medication is Herceptin, a purified anti-body that attacks HER2 receptors in cancer cells. Recent clinical studies suggest that when added to chemotherapy, this medication can cut the recurrence of cancer by more than 50%.

  • Chemotherapy
    Chemotherapy (colloquially, "chemo") is a systemic or whole-body therapy. It involves the use of chemicals that kill rapidly dividing cells, such as cancer cells. However, it also has a significant side effects, as it also indiscriminantly kill other rapidly dividing cells in the body, such as cells in the hair and nail, blood, mouth, intestines, and vagina.

  • Radiation therapy
    Also called radiotherapy, this treatment uses high-energy radiation beams to kill cancer cells.

  • Surgery
    There are two common types of surgery for this disease:

    Lumpectomy with axillary node dissection
    This surgery is used as treatment for stages 0 and I, as well as smaller stage II cancers. Here, the tumor and the lymph nodes beneath the arm are surgically removed.

    Modified Radical Masectomy
    The surgical removal of the breast, nipple and the area around it, as well as the lymph nodes beneath the arm.

Breast Cancer Prognosis

When caught and treated early, the prognosis is good. When treated at stage 0 and I, the survival rates after 5 years are 98% and 95%, respectively.

Mortality rate from breast cancer has been declining steadily. Scientific advances and drug development mean that a woman diagnosed with breast cancer today face a very different (and much more positive) outlook than those diagnosed as recently as five years ago.

Main Menu
Health Articles
Health News
Health Research
Site Map

Health Conditions
Cardiovascular Health
Digestive Health
Infectous Diseases
Musculoskeletal Health
Pregnancy & Childbirth
Skin Health

Misc. Health Articles
Presidential Diseases

All Cancers

Brain Tumor
Breast Cancer
Prostate Cancer

©copyright 2004 - Health In Plain English. All Rights Reserved.

Health Articles Health News Health Research Explained in Plain English