Breast cancer is a specific type of cancer that develops due to the uncontrolled growth of irregular breast cells. Healthy breast cells will continually renew themselves when needed. However, abnormal cells often divide aimlessly, resulting in excess breast tissue.
These excess cells may be benign (harmless), or they can create malignant tumors. When left untreated, these cancerous growths can spread to other areas of the body, such as the lymph nodes.
There are many types of breast cancer, but the most common are invasive ductal cancer and invasive lobular cancer. When facing breast cancer, a patient has ongoing concerns and questions. Choosing the right cancer treatment center is a vital first step toward achieving a positive outcome on the road to recovery.
What is breast cancer?
To start this section, we’ll review the anatomy of a woman’s breast. This part of the body has components, which include the following:
- Glands that make breast milk
- Ducts that carry that milk to the nipple
- Fatty and connective tissue
- Blood vessels
- Lymph vessels
The majority of breast cancers begin in the cells that line the ducts. Some types originate in the glands, and a very small percentage of breast cancer starts in other tissues.
When breast cancer spreads, it often does so through the lymph system. Lymphatic vessels are like small veins, except they transport a clear fluid called lymph away from the breast. Malignant cells can enter these vessels and begin to grow within the lymph nodes under the arm.
Once cancer cells spread to the lymph nodes, they can enter the bloodstream and spread to other areas of the body. That is known as metastasis and will influence the treatment plan.
Types of breast cancer
There are several types of breast cancer. The most common types of breast cancer include the following:
Ductal carcinoma in situ
Ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) is a non-invasive type of breast cancer. Abnormal cells have been detected within the lining of the breast milk duct. It is a very early form of breast cancer that is very treatable. However, it may spread to the surrounding tissue if left untreated.
Invasive ductal carcinoma
Invasive ductal carcinoma (IDC) involves cancer cells that have spread beyond the milk ducts into surrounding breast tissue. These cells can also migrate to other areas of the body. IDC is sometimes referred to as infiltrative ductal carcinoma. IDC is responsible for 70-80% of total breast cancer diagnoses.
Lobular carcinoma in situ
Lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS) is similar to DCIS. The abnormal cells have not spread to outside cells but are isolated to the lobules (milk glands). It is considered highly treatable but must be addressed early to reduce the risk of spread.
Invasive lobular cancer
Invasive lobular cancer (ILC) is characterized by abnormal cells that have spread outside of the milk glands. The cells have reached the surrounding breast tissue and may have even grown in other areas of the body. It is the second most common form of breast cancer.
Symptoms of breast cancer
Early detection of breast cancer can drastically improve patient outcomes. There are many symptoms associated with breast cancer, which include the following:
- Breast pain
- A lump or thick tissue in the underarm or breast
- Unexplained change in breast shape or size
- Irritation in the skin on the breast(s)
- Unusual nipple tenderness
- Nipple discharge
- Breast skin that is red or warm to the touch
These symptoms can occur in a single breast or both breasts. If you are experiencing one or more of these symptoms, it does not necessarily mean that you have developed breast cancer. However, you should speak with a trained medical professional so that they can make an accurate diagnosis.
Breast cancer screening and diagnosis
Screenings are used to detect breast cancer in asymptomatic women. Women should be regularly screened per the recommendations of their health care provider. Screening is generally minimally invasive. However, more comprehensive testing may be necessary if the preliminary screening reveals any abnormalities.
What happens during a screening?
A doctor may use several types of screening to detect breast cancer. Women should perform monthly self-exams between visits to check for lumps or other abnormalities.
The most effective means of screening for breast cancer is known as a mammogram. During this procedure, images of the breast are acquired using low-dose X-rays. Typical mammograms consist of a side to side and top to bottom X-ray of each breast. More advanced screening methods may incorporate an MRI instead of X-rays.
AnMed Health Women's Diagnostic has the most advanced diagnostic tools — like 3D mammography — for early breast cancer detection. 3D mammography is an FDA-approved advanced technology that takes multiple images of the breast tissue to recreate a 3D image. These images are read by one of our board-certified radiologists. Clinical studies have shown that doctors are able to screen for breast cancer more precisely with this technology.
What happens during testing?
Many lumps are benign, meaning that they are non-cancerous. If a lump is detected during a physical screening or mammogram, your physician will likely recommend a biopsy.
During a biopsy, doctors will harvest a small portion of the lump and send it to a lab for testing. After the physician determines if it is malignant or benign, they will provide you with further treatment options.
Stages of breast cancer and risk assessment
Breast cancer, much like other forms of cancer, is divided into stages. The higher the stage, the more severe the breast cancer. Medical professionals have also identified several risk factors that can determine a person’s probability of developing breast cancer. Risk factors and the stages of breast cancer are briefly outlined below.
Breast cancer is the most common form of cancer. Nevertheless, experts do not yet have a clear answer as to why breast cancer has become so prevalent. There are several widely recognized risk factors, including the following:
- Family history
- Personal history
- Radiation exposure to the chest
- Alcohol and tobacco use
- Menstrual history
Unfortunately, some risk factors are out of a woman’s control. Other risk factors, such as dietary habits, weight and alcohol usage, can be mitigated. Women with a family or personal history of breast cancer should reduce any other risk factors as much as possible.
Stages of breast cancer
Breast cancer is staged using a simple system known as TNM. This system involves the analysis of the following three metrics:
- Tumor size
- Lymph node status (location and number of cancerous lymph nodes)
- Metastasis (if cancer has spread to other body parts or organs)
Physicians will also consider factors such as the grade of the tumor and its hormone receptor status. Based on this information, the physician will assign a stage to the cancer, ranging from 0 to 4.
Breast cancer treatment
There are many treatments for breast cancer. Depending on the stage of the cancer, physicians will recommend one or more of these treatment options. Breast cancer treatments include the following:
Breast surgery is designed to remove any cancerous tissue from the breasts. There are two common types of breast cancer surgery: lumpectomies and mastectomies.
Also known as a partial mastectomy, a lumpectomy is designed to conserve healthy breast tissue. During the procedure, the physician will remove the cancerous tissue while leaving as much of the healthy breast intact as possible.
Mastectomies are used as both a form of treatment and a preventative measure. During the procedure, the physician will remove the entire breast. One or both breasts may be removed if necessary. Some patients may be eligible for both a mastectomy and lumpectomy.
While this is a personal decision, the experienced medical staff at AnMed Health will help patients navigate this trying time by providing them with all the support and information they need.
Chemotherapy can be used as the primary treatment mechanism for breast cancer. It can also be used to supplement another type of treatment, such as immunotherapy or radiation therapy. Our staff may also recommend chemotherapy as a means of shrinking a tumor before surgery.
Target therapy relies on pharmaceuticals that block the growth of cancerous cells in specific ways. For instance, target therapy may be recommended if the abnormal protein stimulates the development of a patient’s breast cancer cells. This treatment option is almost always used as a supplement therapy instead of a standalone treatment option.
Hormone therapy is traditionally used after a mastectomy or other breast cancer treatment. Hormone therapy involves taking oral medications daily to stop the growth of hormone-sensitive cancer cells. Generally, patients are instructed to undergo hormone therapy for five to 10 years after completing a breast cancer treatment protocol.
Radiation therapy is one of the many breast cancer treatments used by the multispecialty team at AnMed Health. It involves the precise application of radiation waves to kill cancerous cells. Doctors can use radiation in order to shrink a tumor before surgery, and they may also do so after the operation to ensure that no cancerous cells remain.
Treatment by stages
Our physicians provide each patient a custom treatment plan based on their unique risk factors and the current stage of their breast cancer. For instance, a patient that has Stage 0 breast cancer may need minimally invasive treatment. On the other hand, a patient that has metastasized breast cancer will need a comprehensive treatment plan.
Doctors may combine multiple treatments to produce better patient outcomes. The team at AnMed Health will use every resource at our disposal to provide our patients with world-class medical care.
At AnMed Health, we want to be a resource for our patients. Our level of care goes far beyond the operating table or the exam room. That is why we offer comprehensive support services to our breast cancer patients.
Our hallmark offering is the Cancer Resource Center. This serene, soothing environment has a variety of resources, including:
- Daily health news
- Computers with internet access for research purposes
- Interpretation services
The Cancer Resource Center is open to AnMed Health’s patients and the community. In addition to this on-site resource, we can also connect you with local and virtual support group opportunities. Our goal is to be a shoulder to lean while you are navigating the challenges of a breast cancer diagnosis.
Why AnMed Health?
AnMed Health provides our patients with innovative diagnostic procedures and treatment options. We have been awarded multiple accreditations, which include the following:
AnMed Health is accredited by the American College of Radiology. ACR Accreditation is the gold standard in the field of medical imaging. We were awarded this accreditation in recognition of our advanced screening practices. These practices allow us to more effectively detect breast cancer in its early stages, which results in better patient outcomes.
In addition to being recognized by the ACR, AnMed Health is also accredited under the MQSA. The Mammography Quality Standards Act provides constructive feedback and peer review on equipment, staff qualifications and quality control measures. To earn this accreditation, AnMed Health had to demonstrate that we maintain the highest standards when administering mammograms.
AnMed Health is also a member of the NCI Community Oncology Research Program (NCORP). This program is a national network of cancer care providers, investigators and medical institutions. AnMed is proud to work with NCORP through our affiliation with Upstate Carolina Consortium to improve cancer diagnoses and treatment practices. The Upstate Carolina Consortium (NCORP) integrates three affiliates who together have a well-established history of NCI research participation: AnMed Health, Bon Secours St. Francis and Spartanburg Regional. Together, we bring cancer research to larger and more diverse patient populations to improve the quality of life and survival in cancer patients. Learn more about the Clinical Trials that AnMed Health has access to.
Breast cancer FAQs
Does breast cancer hurt?
Breast cancer can be painful, but a lack of discomfort does not mean that someone is cancer-free. Breast cancer can often go undetected without regular screenings and self-exams.
How quickly does breast cancer spread?
Breast cancer spreads at different rates depending on a variety of patient risk factors. That is why early detection is so vital to achieving a positive treatment outcome.
Why is breast cancer more common than other cancers?
Many risk factors are linked to the development of breast cancer. While there is still much to learn about breast cancer and its prevalence, patients should mitigate risk factors within their control, such as alcohol intake and tobacco usage.
What are the signs that breast cancer has returned?
The common symptoms of breast cancer include a new lump, changes to the breast skin, and nipple discharge. Someone in remission from breast cancer must receive regular screenings. If any breast cancer symptoms are detected, they must promptly see their physician.