Breast cancer

Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at January 13, 2016
StartDiseasesBreast cancer

Breast cancer is defined as the development of malignant cells or cancerous tumors in the breast.


Definition & Facts

Breast cancer is a type of cancer that typically forms within the milk ducts (ductal carcinoma) or the lobules (lobular carcinoma) of the mammary gland. Cancer cells are characterized by uncontrolled division of cells. This abnormal cell growth of malignant cells then invades healthy tissue and can spread throughout the body. Malignant breast cancer spreading to other areas of the body is called metastasis.

Symptoms & Complaints

One of the primary symptoms of breast cancer is discovering a lump in the breast. Generally, these lumps will be hard, thick, and immobile. Other symptoms can include red or dimpled skin on the breast, a bloody discharge from the nipple, and a change in the size or shape of the breast.

Sometimes swollen lymph nodes in the neck area or along the armpits are also symptoms. Swelling or a feeling of warmth may occur in the breast if cancer is present. The nipple could be itchy, scaly, or have a rash growing on or around it. It is recommended to see a doctor if any of these changes occur, even if an individual has recently had a mammogram.

Sometimes there are general symptoms that occur when someone is suffering from breast cancer. Fatigue can be a major symptom or complaint that accompanies this disease. The growing tumor can take nutrients from normal, healthy cells in the body. This can lead to an individual feeling excessive tiredness. It should be noted that symptoms of male breast cancer are usually the same as those for women.


Although breast cancer can be found in both men and women, it is much more likely to occur in women. It is generally believed that breast cancer is caused by a variety of environmental and genetic factors. Approximately 10 percent of breast cancers can be attributed to gene mutations that are passed through families.

Environmental and lifestyle factors are also believed to be linked to developing breast cancer and account for roughly 90 percent of cases. Obesity and heavy alcohol consumption is believed to increase the risk of this type of cancer. Having never been pregnant or having a first baby after age 35 are also considered risk factors. Women who started their periods before age 12 or went through menopause at an older age are considered more likely to develop the disease.

Researchers have also found a link between breast cancer and hormones, especially estrogen. Estrogen is a type of hormone that causes cells to divide more often. Cells are more likely to be abnormal if they are dividing more quickly. The biggest risk factors for cancer, however, are simply being female and over the age of 50.

Diagnosis & Tests

Yearly mammograms are the most common diagnostic tool used to determine if an individual has breast cancer. Diagnostic tests are given to individuals who are suspected of having breast cancer.

A diagnostic test would normally be given after something was found on a routine mammogram. These tests would determine if the cancer was present and how far it had spread.

A biopsy is a type of diagnostic test. A biopsy involves removing tissue from the area suspected of having cancer. This sample is then tested by a pathologist. Once an initial diagnosis has been made, more tests are normally done before beginning treatment.

Chest x-rays, liver function tests, and blood counts are often done to determine if and how far the cancer may have spread. After these tests, as well as others, have been conducted the stage of the cancer is then determined. There are four general stages of cancer that include stage I, stage II, stage III, and stage IV. There are sometimes subcategories within these stages. The course of treatment will then be determined.

Treatment & Therapy

There are a variety of treatments and therapies available to treat breast cancer. Some of the treatments used most often include surgery, radiation (radiotherapy), and chemotherapy. Within these three categories there are several options and forms of specific treatment.

Surgery can include a lumpectomy, which removes the tumor but saves most of the breast, or a mastectomy, which means removing most if not all of the breast. There can also be dissection of the lymph nodes. Chemotherapy uses medicine that travels through the bloodstream. Radiation, or radiotherapy, specifically targets the cancer cells. Sometimes radiation and chemotherapy are used in conjunction with surgery.

Targeted therapies is a form of treatment that specifically targets certain characteristics of the cancer cells. Targeted therapies are less likely to destroy healthy cells. Destroying healthy cells along with cancerous cells is one of the drawbacks of using chemotherapy.

Hormonal therapy for breast cancer and holistic medicine is sometimes used to treat breast cancer as well. Hormonal therapies seem to work the best on cancers that occur in women in postmenopause.

Prevention & Prophylaxis

Preventing breast cancer is similar to preventing most other types of cancers and diseases. Eating a healthy diet and remaining within a healthy weight is one of the best ways to prevent breast cancer. Receiving yearly mammograms as well as completing a monthly breast self-exam is also recommended. Most medical experts advise getting regular mammograms after the age of 40. It is sometimes recommended to get them earlier if a woman has a family history of breast cancer.