Understanding Breast Cancer
Cancer is a broad term for a class of diseases characterized by abnormal cells that grow and invade healthy cells in the body. Breast cancer starts in the cells of the breast as a group of cancer cells that can then invade surrounding tissues or spread (metastasize) to other areas of the body.
What Causes Cancer To Develop?
Cancer begins in the cells which are the basic building blocks that make up tissue. Tissue is found in the breast and other parts of the body. Sometimes, the process of cell growth goes wrong and new cells form when the body doesn’t need them and old or damaged cells do not die as they should. When this occurs, a build-up of cells often forms a mass of tissue called a lump, growth, or tumor.
Breast cancer occurs when malignant tumors develop in the breast. These cells can spread by breaking away from the original tumor and entering blood vessels or lymph vessels, which branch into tissues throughout the body. When cancer cells travel to other parts of the body and begin damaging other tissues and organs, the process is called metastasis.
What Are the Symptoms and Signs of Breast Cancer?
A Change In How The Breast Or Nipple Looks Or Feels
- Nipple tenderness or a lump or thickening in or near the breast or underarm area
- A change in the skin texture or an enlargement of pores in the skin of the breast (some describe this as similar to an orange peel’s texture)
- A lump in the breast (It’s important to remember that all lumps should be investigated by a healthcare professional, but not all lumps are cancerous.)
A Change In The Breast Or Nipple Appearance
- Any unexplained change in the size or shape of the breast
- Dimpling anywhere on the breast
- Unexplained swelling of the breast (especially if on one side only)
- Unexplained shrinkage of the breast (especially if on one side only)
- Recent asymmetry (unequal or lack of sameness) of the breasts. Although it is common for women to have one breast that is slightly larger than the other, if the onset of asymmetry is recent, it should be checked.
- A nipple that is turned slightly inward or inverted
- The skin of the breast, areola, or nipple that becomes scaly, red, or swollen or may have ridges or pitting resembling the skin of an orange
Any Nipple Discharge—Particularly Clear Discharge Or Bloody Discharge
- It is also important to note that a milky discharge that is present when a woman is not breastfeeding should be checked by her doctor, although it is not linked with breast cancer.
- Let your doctor know about any nipple discharge, clear, bloody, or milky. The most concerning discharges are bloody or clear.
Breast cancer can be diagnosed through multiple tests, including a mammogram, ultrasound, MRI, and biopsy.
Breast Cancer Stages
Once a person is determined to have a malignant tumor or the diagnosis of breast cancer, tests are done to find out if cancer cells have spread within the breast or to other parts of the body.
The process used to find out whether cancer has spread within the breast or to other parts of the body is called staging. The information gathered from the staging process determines the stage of the disease. It is important to know the stage in order to plan treatment. The results of some of the tests used to diagnose breast cancer are also used to stage the disease.
Stage 1A breast cancer means the following description applies:
The tumor is smaller than the approximate size of a peanut (2 centimeters or smaller) AND has not spread to the lymph nodes. (2.5 centimeters=1 inch)
Stage 1B breast cancer means one of the following descriptions applies:
Lymph nodes have cancer evidence with small clusters of cells between the approximate size of a pinprick to the approximate width of a grain of rice (.2mm to 2.0 mm).
Stage IIA Breast Cancer Means One Of The Following Descriptions Applies.
No actual tumor is associated with the cancerous cells and less than four auxillary lymph nodes have cancer cells present.
The tumor is less than 2 centimeters and less than four auxillary lymph nodes have cancer cells present.
The tumor is between 2 and 5 centimeters and has not yet spread to the lymph nodes.
Stage IIB Breast Cancer Means One Of The Following Descriptions Applies.
The tumor is between 2 and 5 centimeters and has spread to less than four axillary lymph nodes.
The tumor is larger than five centimeters but has not spread to any axillary lymph nodes.
Stage 3A Breast Cancer Means One Of The Following Descriptions Applies.
No actual tumor is associated with the cancerous cells or the tumor may be any size, AND the nearby lymph nodes (4 or more nodes with as many as 9 affected) contain cancer.
The tumor is larger than the approximate size of a small lime (more than 5 centimeters), AND small clusters of breast cancer cells are found in the lymph nodes between the approximate size of a pinprick and the width of a grain of rice. (.2mm – 2.0mm.)
The tumor is larger than the approximate size of a small lime (over 5 centimeters), AND the cancer has spread to 1, 2, or 3 lymph nodes under the arm or near the breastbone.
Stage 3B Breast Cancer Means The Following Descriptions Apply.
The tumor may be any size, AND cancer has invaded the chest wall or breast skin with evidence of swelling, inflammation, or ulcers (such as with cases like inflammatory breast cancer). The breast cancer may also have invaded up to 9 nearby lymph nodes.
Stage 3C Breast Cancer Means One Of The Following Descriptions Applies.
No actual tumor is found in the breast (such as with cases like inflammatory breast cancer) or the tumor may be any size, AND cancer may have invaded the chest wall or breast skin with evidence of swelling, inflammation, or ulcers and cancer has also invaded 10 or more lymph nodes under the arm
No actual tumor is found in the breast or the tumor may be any size AND lymph nodes extending to the collarbone area are found to contain cancer.
No actual tumor is found in the breast or the tumor may be any size AND lymph nodes under the arm and near the breastbone are found to contain cancer.
What Does It Mean To Have Stage 4 Breast Cancer?
Stage 4 breast cancer means that the cancer has spread to other areas of the body, such as the brain, bones, lungs, and liver.
Although Stage 4 breast cancer is not curable, it is usually treatable and current advances in research and medical technology mean that more and more women are living longer by managing the disease as a chronic illness with a focus on the quality of life as a primary goal. With excellent care and support, as well as personal motivation, Stage 4 breast cancer may respond to a number of treatment options that can extend your life for several years.