While most people are familiar with the idea and repercussions of breast cancer, not everyone may know what exactly breast cancer is or how it comes to be.
Kinds of Breast Cancer
Put simply, breast cancer is the continued growth of abnormal cells in the area of the breast. This area can include the ducts (that carry milk), lobules (that produce milk), and connective tissue (that holds everything together. Most breast cancers start in the lobules or ducts. And while this does mean cancers appear in the area that we traditionally think of as the breast, it includes the underarms as well.
But there is not one single type of breast cancer. And sometimes, the types overlap.
Invasive Ductal Carcinoma
With invasive ductal carcinoma, cancer cells start in ducts and spread out into the surrounding breast tissue. If it continues to spread to other parts of the body, it metastasizes.
Invasive Lobular Carcinoma
Invasive lobular carcinoma starts in the lobules and spreads to nearby breast tissue. This cancer can also metastasize.
Less Common Types
There are many other kinds of breast cancers, though most are less common. Medullary breast carcinoma starts similarly to invasive ductal, but grows slowly and only rarely spreads to the lymph nodes.
Mucinous or colloid carcinoma is a variation on invasive ductal carcinoma. However, the cancer cells float in mucin, an ingredient in the body’s natural mucus.
Paget’s Disease of the nipple originates with cancer cells collecting in and around the nipple, traditionally the ducts there. From there, it can spread to the areola and further.
Inflammatory breast cancer is also a variation on invasive ductal carcinoma. It is generally accompanied by symptoms of inflammation such as swelling, dimpling, and redness.
Triple-Negative breast cancer does not have the three common receptors found in breast cancers. These receptors are for estrogen, progesterone, and HER2 (human epidermal growth factor). Without the receptors, some methods of treatment are not available.
Ductal carcinoma in situ, or DCIS, is considered either the earliest stage of breast cancer or pre-cancer that is likely to lead to breast cancer. Cancerous cells are forming in the ductal lining, but they have not spread.
How Breast Cancer Spreads
Breast cancer cells start in ducts, lobules, and breast tissue. However, they can spread to the lymph nodes, raising the odds of metastasis–cancer cells spreading through the lymph system and the rest of the body. The more lymph nodes that have cancer cells, the more likely metastasis is. However, metastasis is not an inevitability. Some people with cancer cells in their lymph nodes do not have metastases. And, unfortunately, metastasis can occur despite there currently being no cancer cells in the lymph nodes.
What Are Breast Cancer Symptoms?
There are several possible changes to the breast that can be noticed in regular–monthly is recommended–self-breast checks. Keep an eye out for any changes to your regular breast shape, texture, or color. Some changes that may indicate the need to visit a doctor are:
- A lump in the breast or armpit
- Swelling or change in size to any part of the breast.
- Discharge of any kind that is not milk coming from the nipple (including blood)
- Puckering of the nipple/Inversion of the nipple
- Flaky skin or redness around the nipple or the breast
- Dimpling of the skin (like the skin of an orange) on the breast
- Pain in any part of the breast
Any one of the symptoms on its own does not mean you have breast cancer. They could indicate an infection or changes due to hormonal shifts. However, if the signs continue or you are concerned, bring them to the attention of your doctor.
There is no one sign that someone will or won’t get breast cancer, but there are some risk factors that can raise your chances. Some of these factors are genetic factors, while others come from a person’s lifestyle.
Some of the factors that cannot be reduced are:
- Gender–being a woman increases your risk
- Age–risk increase with age
- Dense breasts–they are harder to see through on a mammogram, making early detection more difficult
- Family history–the risk is increased if a close family relative (mother, sister, daughter) has had breast cancer
- Personal history–previous breast conditions or breast cancer increase risk
- Certain gene mutations–BRCA1 and BRCA2, as well as other mutations, can increase risk
- Radiation exposure–while this may come from many sources, even medical treatment, it could potentially be a risk factor.
- Starting your period young
- Starting menopause older
Can Risk be Reduced?
Some potential risk factors come from lifestyle practices and can be adjusted for. Some of these factors are:
- Alcohol–drinking in excess can increase risk
- Obesity–obesity can increase your risk, particularly after menopause
- Taking hormones–certain forms of hormone replacement therapy (progesterone and estrogen, primarily) can increase risk when taken for over five years after menopause. Some birth control pills can also increase breast cancer risk
- Not having children or having them at an older age can increase risk.
- Excercise–by not exercising, breast cancer risk can increase. Maintaining a healthy exercise schedule for yourself, you can lower your risk.
The best way to prevent breast cancer in yourself is to maintain the risk factors that you can. Beyond that, keep yourself familiar with your breasts with a monthly breast self-check. More than anything, this keeps you familiar with the size, texture, and sensation of your breast so that you might be more likely to notice a change should one appear.
Also, speak with your doctor about breast cancer screening. They know the best time to start screening and will help you to the next steps if there are any concerns. Checking in on your breasts yourself, having your doctor check, and having regular screenings will help you be prepared and catch anything early should there be any signs of breast cancer to find.
Valerie J. Gorman, MD, FACS, works to ensure that her patients are informed and receive a personalized approach to cancer treatment and breast cancer surgery. If you have questions about breast cancer or how it is treated, she or the team at Texas Breast Center in Waxahachie are happy to help answer your questions.
Dr. Gorman is board certified by the American Board of Surgery and serves as Medical Director of Surgical Services and Chief of Surgery at Baylor Scott & White Medical Center – Waxahachie.