Cancer is a disease in which abnormal cells in the body grow out of control. Cancers are named after the part of the body where the abnormal cell growth begins. Breast cancers are cancer cells from the breast. When breast cancer cells spread to other parts of the body, they are called metastases.
Common Kinds of Breast Cancer
There are different kinds of breast cancer. The kind of breast cancer depends on which cells in the breast turn into cancer. Breast cancer can begin in different parts of the breast, like the ducts or the lobes.
Common kinds of breast cancer are:
- Ductal carcinoma. The most common kind of breast cancer. It begins in the cells that line the milk ducts in the breast, also called the lining of the breast ducts.
- Ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS). The abnormal cancer cells are only in the lining of the milk ducts, and have not spread to other tissues in the breast.
- Invasive ductal carcinoma. The abnormal cancer cells break through the ducts and spread into other parts of the breast tissue. Invasive cancer cells can also spread to other parts of the body.
- Lobular carcinoma. In this kind of breast cancer, the cancer cells begin in the lobes, or lobules, of the breast. Lobules are the glands that make milk.
- Lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS). The cancer cells are found only in the breast lobules. Lobular carcinoma in situ, or LCIS, does not spread to other tissues very often.
- Invasive lobular carcinoma. Cancer cells spread from the lobules to the breast tissues that are close by. These invasive cancer cells can also spread to other parts of the body.
Uncommon Kinds of Breast Cancer
There are several other less common kinds of breast cancer, such as Paget's disease or inflammatory breast cancer. For more information about these kinds of breast cancer, visit the National Cancer Institute's General Information about Breast Cancer Treatment.
Different people have different warning signs for breast cancer. Some people do not have any signs or symptoms at all. A person may find out they have breast cancer after a routine mammogram.
Some warning signs of breast cancer are:
- New lump in the breast or underarm (armpit).
- Thickening or swelling of part of the breast.
- Irritation or dimpling of breast skin.
- Redness or flaky skin in the nipple area or the breast.
- Pulling in of the nipple or pain in the nipple area.
- Nipple discharge other than breast milk, including blood.
- Any change in the size or the shape of the breast.
- Pain in any area of the breast.
Keep in mind that some of these warning signs can happen with other conditions that are not cancer.
If you have any signs that worry you, be sure to see your doctor right away.
Research has found several risk factors that may increase your chances of getting breast cancer.
Risk factors that increase risk of breast cancer include:
- Getting older.
- Being younger when you first had your menstrual period.
- Starting menopause at a later age.
- Being older at the birth of your first child.
- Never giving birth
- Not breastfeeding.
- Personal history of breast cancer or some non-cancerous breast diseases.
- Family history of breast cancer (mother, sister, daughter).
- Treatment with radiation therapy to the breast/chest.
- Being overweight (increases risk for breast cancer after menopause).
- Long-term use of hormone replacement therapy (estrogen and progesterone combined).
- Having changes in the breast cancer-related genes BRCA1 or BRCA2.
- Using birth control pills, also called oral contraceptives.
- Drinking alcohol (more than one drink a day).
- Not getting regular exercise.
Having a risk factor does not mean you will get the disease. Most women have some risk factors and most women do not get breast cancer. If you have breast cancer risk factors, talk with your doctor about ways you can lower your risk and about screening for breast cancer.
There are ways you can help lower your risk of breast cancer:
- Control your weight and exercise. Make healthy choices in the foods you eat and the kinds of drinks you have each day. Stay active. To learn more about keeping a healthy weight and ways to increase your physical activity, visit CDC's Division of Nutrition and Physical Activity and MyPyramid.gov.
- Know your family history of breast cancer. If you have a mother, sister, or daughter with breast cancer, ask your doctor what is your risk of getting breast cancer and how you can lower your risk. For more information, visit the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality for information about medicines to prevent breast cancer and about genetic testing for breast cancer.
- Find out the risks and benefits of hormone replacement therapy. Some women use hormone replacement therapy (HRT) to treat the symptoms of menopause. Ask your doctor about the risks and benefits of HRT and find out if hormone replacement therapy is right for you. To learn more about HRT, visit the Agency for Healthcare Research Quality and the National Cancer Institute (NCI)-Menopausal Hormone Use and Cancer: Questions and Answers.
- Limit the amount of alcohol you drink. For more information, see the Alcohol Chapter of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005.
- Get screened for breast cancer regularly. By getting the necessary exams, you can increase your chances of finding out early on, if you have breast cancer. For more information about the kinds of tests used to screen for breast cancer, and to learn how you can be screened, see Screening.
How Can I Help Others in My Community?
You can help prevent breast cancer in your community. Get involved in community groups that help friends and neighbors get screened for breast cancer, and reduce their risk by helping them exercise and maintain a healthy weight.
Join your community's Comprehensive Cancer Control program. CDC supports Comprehensive Cancer Control (CCC) programs in all 50 states and many American Indian/Alaska Native tribes and U.S. territories. CCC programs bring together cancer experts, survivors, advocates, and other organizations to plan ways to prevent and control breast and other cancers. For more information, contact your local Comprehensive Cancer Control program.
Increase screening in your community. Giving information to members of your community through newsletters, brochures, and pamphlets is an effective way to increase use of screening services. Research has shown other activities by community groups are effective as well. For more information, see CDC's Guide to Community Preventive Services. For tools, visit Cancer Control PLANET.
Encourage exercise in your neighborhood. Working with your community to provide better locations for physical activity, such as parks and sidewalks, is an effective way to increase activity. For more information, see CDC's Guide to Community Preventive Services. For tools, visit Cancer Control PLANET.
Help members of your community maintain a healthy weight. Workplace programs to change diet and promote physical activity have been found to be effective. For more information on community efforts to support a healthy weight, visit CDC's Guide to Community Preventive Services. For tools related to diet and physical activity, visit Cancer Control PLANET.
For more information about breast cancer prevention, visit the National Cancer Institute (NCI) Breast Cancer (PDQ): Prevention and the Community Guide to Preventive Services.
Kinds of Screening Tests
Breast cancer screening means checking a woman's breasts for cancer before there are signs or symptoms of the disease. Three main tests are used to screen the breasts for cancer. Talk to your doctor about which tests are right for you, and when you should have them.
- Mammogram. A mammogram is an X-ray of the breast. Mammograms are the best method to detect breast cancer early when it is easier to treat and before it is big enough to feel or cause symptoms. Having regular mammograms can lower the risk of dying from breast cancer. 1 If you are age 40 years or older, be sure to have a screening mammogram every one to two years.
- Clinical breast exam. A clinical breast exam is an examination by a doctor or nurse, who uses his or her hands to feel for lumps or other changes. 2
- Breast self-exam. A breast self-exam is when you check your own breasts for lumps, changes in size or shape of the breast, or any other changes in the breasts or underarm (armpit).
Which tests to choose: Having a clinical breast exam or a breast self-exam have not been found to decrease risk of dying from breast cancer. 1 Keep in mind that, at this time, the best way to find breast cancer is with a mammogram. If you choose to have clinical breast exams and to perform breast self-exams, be sure you also get regular mammograms.
Want to Know More about Breast Cancer Screening?
Visit the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) and the National Cancer Institute (NCI).
Where Can I Go to Get Screened?
Most likely, you can get screened for breast cancer at a clinic, hospital, or doctor's office. If you want to be screened for breast cancer, call your doctor's office. They can help you schedule an appointment. Most health insurance companies pay for the cost of breast cancer screening tests.
Are you worried about the cost? The National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program (NBCCEDP) offers free or low-cost mammograms. To find out if you qualify, call your local program.
Doctors often use additional tests to find or diagnose breast cancer.
- Breast ultrasound. A machine uses sound waves to make detailed pictures, called sonograms, of areas inside the breast.
- Diagnostic mammogram. If you have a problem in your breast, such as lumps, or if an area of the breast looks abnormal on a screening mammogram, doctors may have you get a diagnostic mammogram. This is a more detailed X-ray of the breast.
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). A kind of body scan that uses a magnet linked to a computer. The MRI scan will make detailed pictures of areas inside the breast.
- Biopsy. This is a test that removes tissue or fluid from the breast to be looked at under a microscope and do more testing. There are different kinds of biopsies (for example, fine-needle aspiration, core biopsy, or open biopsy).
For more information, visit the National Cancer Institute (NCI), What You Need to Know About Breast Cancer: Diagnosis.
If breast cancer is diagnosed, tests are done to find out if cancer cells have spread within the breast or to other parts of the body. This process is called staging. Whether the cancer is only in the breast, is found in lymph nodes under your arm, or has spread outside the breast determines your stage of breast cancer. The type and stage of breast cancer tells doctors what kind of treatment will be needed.
Kinds of Treatment
Breast cancer is treated in several ways. It depends on the kind of breast cancer and how far it has spread. Treatments include surgery, chemotherapy, hormonal therapy, biologic therapy, and radiation. People with breast cancer often get more than one kind of treatment.
- Surgery. An operation where doctors cut out and remove cancer tissue.
- Chemotherapy. Using special medicines, or drugs to shrink or kill the cancer. The drugs can be pills you take or medicines given through an intravenous (IV) tube, or, sometimes, both.
- Hormonal therapy. Some cancers need certain hormones to grow. Hormonal treatment is used to block cancer cells from getting the hormones they need to grow.
- Biological therapy. This treatment works with your body's immune system to help it fight cancer or to control side effects from other cancer treatments. Side effects are how your body reacts to drugs or other treatments. Biological therapy is different from chemotherapy, which attacks cancer cells directly.
- Radiation. The use of high-energy rays (similar to X-rays) to kill the cancer cells. The rays are aimed at the part of the body where the cancer is located.
It is common for doctors from different specialties to work together in treating breast cancer. Surgeons are doctors that perform operations. Medical oncologists are doctors that treat cancers with medicines. Radiation oncologists are doctors that treat cancers with radiation.
For more information, visit the National Cancer Institute (NCI) - Breast Cancer Treatment Option Overview. This site can also help you find a doctor or treatment facility that works in cancer care. Visit Breast Cancer Survivorship for more information about treatment and links that can help with treatment choices.
If you have breast cancer, you may want to take part in a clinical trial. Clinical trials are research studies that help find new treatment options. Visit the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and National Institutes of Health (NIH) sites listed below for more information about finding clinical trials.
Complementary and Alternative Medicine
Complementary medicine is a group of medicines and practices that may be used in addition to the standard treatments for cancer. Alternative medicine means practices or medicines that are used instead of the usual, or standard, ways of treating cancer. Examples of complementary and alternative medicine are meditation, yoga, and dietary supplements like vitamins and herbs.
Complementary and alternative medicine does not treat breast cancer, but may help lessen the side effects of the cancer treatments or of the cancer symptoms. It is important to note that many forms of complementary and alternative medicines have not been scientifically tested and may not be safe. Talk to your doctor before you start any kind of complementary or alternative medicine.
For more information about complementary and alternative medicine, visit the National Cancer Institute's Guide to Complementary and Alternative Therapies.
Which Treatment Is Right for Me?
Choosing which kind of treatment is right for you may be hard. If you have breast cancer, be sure to talk to your doctor about the treatment options available for your type and stage of cancer. Doctors can explain the risks and benefits of each treatment and their side effects.
Sometimes people get an opinion from more than one breast cancer doctor. This is called a "second opinion." Getting a second opinion may help you choose the treatment option that is right for you.