What is breast cancer?

Cancer occurs in the body when some cells begin to grow abnormally, pushing out healthy cells and forming a lump or mass. Cancer can affect any part of the body. When it happens in a breast it is called breast cancer. This name sticks even if the cancer also spreads to other parts of the body.

The most common type of breast cancer occurs in a woman's breast milk duct and spreads into the nearby breast tissue. Other types of breast cancer occur in the nipple, darkened area around the nipple or other breast cells or tissues.

Types of breast cancer
Ductal Carcinoma in Situ (DCIS) Invasive Ductal Carcinoma (IDC) Invasive Lobular Carcinoma (ILC) Male Breast Cancer

Causes of breast cancer

While there are certain conditions that make it more likely that a person will get breast cancer (these are called risk factors), not everyone who has these risk factors will get breast cancer.

Some people who don't have any risk factors still get breast cancer. The most likely explanation is that it's caused by a combination of genetics and environment.

Risk factors for breast cancer

Risk factors for breast cancer include:

  • Gender — while some men get breast cancer, it is more common among women.
  • Getting older
  • A personal or family history of breast diseases or breast cancer
  • Inherited gene mutations — permanent changes in the DNA in your cells you were born with.
  • Getting chest radiation treatments when you were a child or young adult
  • Beginning menstruation before you were 12 years old
  • Having your first child after you were 30 years old
  • Never getting pregnant
  • Beginning menopause at an older age
  • Using hormone replacement therapy to reduce the symptoms of menopause
  • Drinking alcohol
  • Being obese or overweight

Symptoms of breast cancer

All of the common symptoms of breast cancer involve changes to the breast or tissue surrounding it.

These symptoms include:

  • Lump or bump in the breast
  • Change in breast size, shape or appearance
  • Dimpling, redness, pitting or other changes in the breast skin
  • Changes in the nipple area, such as a newly inverted nipple or peeling, flaking or crusting of the skin around the nipple
  • Unusual fluid or discharge from the nipple

Diagnosis of breast cancer

Tests that doctors can use to look for breast cancer include:

  • Physical examination — the doctor examines your breasts and the areas under your arm and above your collarbone.
  • Mammogram — this test is a breast x-ray.
  • Ultrasound — this test uses sound waves to create pictures of the inside of the breast. The technician moves a small wand over your skin to create images that help the doctor see whether a breast lump could be cancerous.
  • Ductogram — this involves putting a very thin plastic tube through the breast nipple and into the duct. Dye is put into the tube to make it easier to look at the pictures taken.
  • Nipple discharge exam — in this test, fluid or discharge from the breast is sent to a lab to be examined.
  • Biopsy — in this procedure, the doctor collects a small sample of your breast tissue. The sample is examined in a lab by a trained technician.

Treatments for breast cancer

Patients who have breast cancer have a variety of treatment options. These options may include:

  • Surgery — the cancerous tissue is removed from the breast; talk to your doctor about which approach is best for you.
  • Lumpectomy — a type of surgery where only the lump is removed, not the entire breast.
  • Mastectomy — a type of surgery where the entire breast is removed.
  • Radiation therapy — this treatment uses high-powered x-rays to destroy cancerous tissue inside the body; radiation may be used after a lumpectomy or mastectomy to kill any remaining cancer cells.
  • Chemotherapy — this involves taking drugs either orally or intravenously.
  • Hormone therapy — pills are taken that block your body's production of the female hormone estrogen. This drug can increase your risk of uterus cancer, so if you take it, you should have an annual pelvic exam.

Recovery from breast cancer

After you've completed treatment for breast cancer, you'll need to visit your doctor for follow-up exams, blood tests and possibly other tests. At first, you might visit your doctor every three or six months. Later, you might visit your doctor just once a year.

Unless you've had a full mastectomy of both breasts, you should continue to follow your doctor's advice regarding annual mammograms.

Women who have a mastectomy may choose to have the shape of their breast restored with reconstructive surgery. This procedure can be done during or after the mastectomy.

Find a breast cancer specialist nearby

Mercy Health locations that can treat you