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Home > Cancers We Treat > Breast Cancer > Breast Cancer in Women

Breast Cancer in Women

Breast cancer is a disease in which cancer cells grow in the breast. Normally, the cells of the breast divide in a regulated manner. If cells keep dividing when new cells are not needed, a mass of tissue forms. This mass is called a tumor. A tumor can be benign or malignant. 

A graphic depicting breast cancer. On the left is a side view of the outline of a woman, and on the right shows a closer view of the breast with a cancerous tumor.
Breast Cancer
Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.

A benign tumor is not cancer and will not spread to other parts of the body. A malignant tumor is cancer. Cancer cells divide and damage tissue around them. They can enter the bloodstream and spread to other parts of the body. This can be life-threatening.

Breast cancer is the most common form of cancer found in women, but lung cancer claims more lives.

Although the majority of breast cancer cases occur in women, it occurs in men as well

Caucasian, Hawaiian, and African-American women have the highest rates of breast cancer in the US. The lowest rates occur among Korean, Native American, and Vietnamese women. The risk of breast cancer increases with age.

Normal Anatomy and the Development of Breast Cancer

The normal breast consists of glandular tissue called lobes. These lobes are sectioned off into lobules, which produce milk. Milk is carried to and from the lobules to the nipple by small ducts. All this tissue is surrounded by fatty and connective tissue, as well as blood and lymph vessels.

The lymph vessels lead to structures called lymph nodes. Clusters of lymph nodes are found under the arm, above the collarbone, in the chest, and in other parts of the body. Together, the lymph vessels and lymph nodes make up the lymphatic system, which circulates a fluid called lymph throughout the body. Lymph contains cells that help fight infection and disease. Although the lymphatic system is used to defend the body, it can also serve as a mechanism to spread cancer cells. Cancer can spread to other lymph nodes or to other parts of the body via the bloodstream.

Breast cancer can start anywhere in the breast tissue, but the most common places are in the ducts and lobules. If they remain undetected, cancer cells may form a tumor, or invade nearby tissue, such as the chest wall or lymph glands. When cancer is metastatic, it spreads to other parts of body replacing healthy tissue with cancerous tissue. The most common sites for metastatic breast cancer are the bones, lung, brain and liver.

Types of Breast Cancer

Breast cancer can develop in different ways and may affect different parts of the breast. The location of cancer will affect the progression of cancer and the treatment.

Most breast cancers are carcinomas—malignant tumors that grow out of the surface or lining of the glandular tissue of the breast. Other very rare types of breast cancer are formed in the surrounding and supporting tissues, and your doctor may call these sarcomas, acinar tumors, or lymphomas.

Breast cancer can be classified by its invasiveness. In situ cancers are localized. This means the cancer is contained to the affected tissue only, and has not spread. Treatment for in situ cancers are generally local and a cure can be attained in most all cases.

Infiltrating cancers however, have begun to spread beyond the primary site. Depending on how long the cancer has been growing, invasion can occur in adjacent tissue or distant sites in the body.

In Situ Cancers

  • Ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) — Is commonly seen now because this form is generally seen on a mammogram and is identified by unusual calcium deposits or puckering of the breast tissue (called stellate appearance). This type of cancer has a high cure rate. However, if left untreated, DCIS will progress to infiltrating breast cancer.
  • Lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS) — Unlike DCIS, LCIS is not really cancer at all. Most doctors consider the finding of LCIS to be incidental, and it is thought to be a marker for breast cancer risk. That is, women with LCIS seem to have a 7-10 times increased risk of developing some form of breast cancer (usually infiltrating lobular carcinoma) over the next 20 years.

LCIS does not warrant treatment by surgery or radiation therapy. Your doctor will monitor your LCIS with regular check-ups and tests to see if there is any further development.

Infiltrating Cancers
  • Ductal carcinoma — This is the most common form of breast cancer and accounts for 70% of breast cancer cases. This cancer develops in the milk ducts.
  • Lobular carcinoma — This originates in the milk-producing lobules of the breast. It can spread to the fatty tissue and other parts of the body.
  • Medullary, mucinous, and tubular carcinomas — These are three relatively slower-growing types of breast cancer.
  • Inflammatory carcinoma — This is the fastest growing and most difficult type of breast cancer to treat. This cancer invades the lymphatic vessels of the skin and can be very extensive. It is very likely to spread to the local lymph nodes.

Paget's Disease

Paget's disease is cancer of the areola and nipple. It is very rare, occurring in less than 1% of all breast cancers. Although Paget's does not arise from glandular tissue in the breast, it can be associated with both in situ and infiltrating breast cancers. Generally, women who develop this type of cancer have a history of nipple crusting, scaling, itching or inflammation.

Breast Cancer in Men

Although more common in women, men can get breast cancer, too. Read about breast cancer in men.

UVA Breast Care Program

The UVA Breast Care Program offers advanced screening options for women getting mammograms and a personalized care plan for women who need breast cancer treatmentBreast care provided by a team that specializes in your specific needs.

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