What Is Breast Cancer?
As in all forms of cancer, breast cancer is made of unusual cells that have grown uncontrollably. Those cells may also travel to places in your body where they aren’t normally found. When that happens, the cancer is called metastatic.
Breast cancer starts when cells in the breast begin to augment out of control. These cells usually form a tumor that can often be seen on an x-ray or felt as a lump. The tumor is deathly (cancer) if the cells can grow into (invade) surrounding tissues or expanse (metastasize) to distant areas of the body. Breast cancer occurs nearly entirely in women, but men can get breast cancer, too.
Cells in nearly any part of the body can become cancer and can spread to other areas. To learn additional about cancer and how all cancers start and spread, see Cancer Basics.
Where breast cancer starts
Breast cancers can start from separate parts of the breast. Most breast cancers begin in the ducts that carry milk to the nipple (ductal cancers). Some start in the glands that make breast milk (lobular cancers). There are too other types of breast cancer that are less common.
A small number of cancers start in other tissues in the breast. These cancers are called sarcomas and lymphomas and are not actually thought of as breast cancers.
Although many types of breast cancer can cause a lump in the breast, not all do. Many breast cancers are found on screening mammograms which can detect cancers at an earlier stage, often before they can be felt, and before symptoms develop. There are other symptoms of breast cancer you should watch for and report to a health care provider.
How breast cancer spreads
Breast cancer can spread when the cancer cells get into the blood or lymph system and are carried to other parts of the body.
The lymph system is a network of lymph (or lymphatic) vessels found throughout the body that connects lymph nodes (small bean-shaped collections of immune system cells). The clear fluid inside the lymph vessels, called lymph, contains tissue by-products and waste material, as well as immune system cells. The lymph vessels carry lymph fluid away from the breast. In the case of breast cancer, cancer cells can enter those lymph vessels and start to grow in lymph nodes. Most of the lymph vessels of the breast drain into:
Lymph nodes under the arm (axillary nodes)
Lymph nodes around the collar bone (supraclavicular [above the collar bone] and infraclavicular [below the collar bone] lymph nodes)
Lymph nodes inside the chest near the breast bone (internal mammary lymph nodes)
Fast facts on breast cancer:
Here are some key points about breast cancer. More detail is in the main article.
Breast cancer is the most common cancer among women.
Symptoms include a lump or thickening of the breast, and changes to the skin or the nipple.
Risk factors can be genetic, but some lifestyle factors, such as alcohol intake, make it more likely to happen.
A range of treatments is available, including surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy.
Many breast lumps are not cancerous, but any woman who is concerned about a lump or change should see a doctor.
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