Breast cancer is a result of abnormal changes within cells. Usually, cells grow and divide to give the body new cells as needed. Old or damaged cells die and are replaced by these new cells.
However, when the cell mutates, it can divide unchecked and produce more cells like it. These mutated cells cluster together to form a tumor. There are two types of tumors: benign and malignant. Benign tumors are not considered cancerous. Malignant tumors are cancerous and can spread to other parts of the body.
Breast cancer is the result of a malignant tumor that has developed in the breast. Breast cancer generally begins in the lobules (milk-producing glands) or the ducts (passages that move milk from the lobules to the nipple). Also, breast cancer can start in the stromal tissues (the connective tissues of the breast).
About 5-10% of breast cancers are inherited. The vast majority – 85-90% – of breast cancers result from genetic abnormalities brought on by aging and life.
Cancer cells can move into the nearby healthy breast tissue and ultimately into lymph nodes under your arm. If cancer cells make it to the lymph nodes, they can spread (metastasize) to other parts of the body. Still, not all cancer cells in the lymph nodes spread, and you could develop metastases later even with no cancer cells in the lymph nodes.
The most common breast cancers are ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) and invasive carcinoma. A biopsy will test for estrogen receptors, progesterone receptors, and HER2. Depending on the specific proteins found on the cells, the tumor will be graded to help decide treatment options.
What to know about breast cancer
Breast cancer is most common in middle-aged and older women. There are different screening tests, including physical exams, lab testing, imaging, and genetic. Conventional tests for breast cancer include:
- Exam – the doctor checks both breasts and lymph nodes in your armpit, feeling for any lumps or other abnormalities.
- Mammogram – an X-ray of the breast commonly used to screen for cancer.
- Ultrasound – uses sound waves to produce images to determine whether a new breast lump is a solid mass or a fluid-filled cyst.
- Biopsy – the doctor uses a specialized needle to extract a core of tissue from the suspicious area. A biopsy is a definitive way to make a breast cancer diagnosis of breast cancer.
- Magnetic resonance imaging – An MRI machine uses a magnet and radio waves to create pictures of the breast’s interior.
Cancer’s characteristics determine the stage of breast cancer. Your doctor’s diagnosis will be based on:
- Prognosis and the likely outcome
- Best treatment options
- Whether a clinical trial may be an option
Cancer stage is scaled between 0 and IV:
- Stage 0 –non-invasive cancers that remain within their original location.
- Stage I – cancer is small and only in one area.
- Stage II and III – cancer is more extensive and has grown into nearby tissues or lymph nodes.
- Stage IV – invasive cancers that have metastasized from the breast to other parts of the body.
There are steps every person can take to help the body stay as healthy as possible. However, these will not eliminate the risk:
- Balanced, nutritional diet
- Exercising regularly
- Limiting alcohol
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Not smoking
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