Breast Cancer

Pink Ribbon for Breast Cancer Awareness Month

Breast Cancer

What are the causes of breast cancer?

Breast cancer is the most common cause of cancer in women and the second most common cause of cancer death in women in the U.S. While the majority of new breast cancers are diagnosed as a result of an abnormality seen on a mammogram, a lump, or change in consistency of the breast tissue can also be a warning sign of the disease. Heightened awareness of breast cancer risk in the past decades has led to an increase in the number of women undergoing mammography for screening, leading to detection of cancers in earlier stages and a resultant improvement in survival rates. Still, breast cancer is the most common cause of death in women between 45-55 years of age. Although breast cancer in women is a common form of cancer, male breast cancer does occur and accounts for about 1% of all cancer deaths in men.

Research has yielded much information about the causes of breast cancers, and it is now believed that genetic and/or hormonal factors are the primary risk factors for breast cancer. Staging systems have been developed to allow doctors to characterize the extent to which a particular cancer has spread and to make decisions concerning treatment options. Breast cancer treatment depends upon many factors, including the type of cancer and the extent to which it has spread. Treatment options for breast cancer may involve surgery (removal of the cancer alone or, in some cases, mastectomy), radiation therapy, hormonal therapy, and/or chemotherapy.

With advances in screening, diagnosis, and treatment, the death rate for breast cancer has declined. In fact, about 90% of women newly diagnosed with breast cancer will survive for at least five years. Research is ongoing to develop even more effective screening and treatment programs.

MedicineNet Medical Author: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
MedicineNet Medical Editor: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR


The following information is provided by the National Cancer Institute.

The breasts

Inside a woman's breast are 15 to 20 sections called lobes. Each lobe is made of many smaller sections called lobules. Lobules have groups of tiny glands that can make milk. After a baby is born, a woman's breast milk flows from the lobules through thin tubes called ducts to the nipple. Fat and fibrous tissue fill the spaces between the lobules and ducts.

The breasts also contain lymph vessels. These vessels are connected to small, round masses of tissue called lymph nodes. Groups of lymph nodes are near the breast in the underarm (axilla), above the collarbone, and in the chest behind the breastbone.

Picture of the anatomy of the breast
Picture of the anatomy of the breast

Cancer cells

Cancer begins in cells, the building blocks that make up tissues. Tissues make up the breasts and other parts of the body.

Normal cells grow and divide to form new cells as the body needs them. When normal cells grow old or get damaged, they die, and new cells take their place.

Sometimes, this process goes wrong. New cells form when the body doesn't need them, and old or damaged cells don't die as they should. The buildup of extra cells often forms a mass of tissue called a lump, growth, or tumor.

Tumors in the breast can be benign (not cancer) or malignant (cancer). Benign tumors are not as harmful as malignant tumors:

Benign tumors:

  • are rarely a threat to life


  • can be removed and usually don't grow back


  • don't invade the tissues around them


  • don't spread to other parts of the body

Malignant tumors:

  • may be a threat to life


  • often can be removed but sometimes grow back


  • can invade and damage nearby organs and tissues (such as the chest wall)


  • can spread to other parts of the body

Breast cancer cells can spread by breaking away from the original tumor. They enter blood vessels or lymph vessels, which branch into all the tissues of the body. The cancer cells may be found in lymph nodes near the breast. The cancer cells may attach to other tissues and grow to form new tumors that may damage those tissues.

The spread of cancer is called metastasis.

Quick GuideBreast Cancer Diagnosis and Treatment

Breast Cancer Diagnosis and Treatment

Risk factors

When you're told that you have breast cancer, it's natural to wonder what may have caused the disease. But no one knows the exact causes of breast cancer. Doctors seldom know why one woman develops breast cancer and another doesn't.

Doctors do know that bumping, bruising, or touching the breast does not cause cancer. And breast cancer is not contagious. You can't catch it from another person.

Doctors also know that women with certain risk factors are more likely than others to develop breast cancer. A risk factor is something that may increase the chance of getting a disease.

Some risk factors (such as drinking alcohol) can be avoided. But most risk factors (such as having a family history of breast cancer) can't be avoided.

Studies have found the following risk factors for breast cancer:

  • Age: The chance of getting breast cancer increases as you get older. Most women are over 60 years old when they are diagnosed.


  • Personal health history: Having breast cancer in one breast increases your risk of getting cancer in your other breast. Also, having certain types of abnormal breast cells (atypical hyperplasia, lobular carcinoma in situ [LCIS], or ductal carcinoma in situ [DCIS]) increases the risk of invasive breast cancer. These conditions are found with a breast biopsy.


  • Family health history: Your risk of breast cancer is higher if your mother, father, sister, or daughter had breast cancer. The risk is even higher if your family member had breast cancer before age 50. Having other relatives (in either your mother's or father's family) with breast cancer or ovarian cancer may also increase your risk.


  • Certain genome changes: Changes in certain genes, such as BRCA1 or BRCA2, substantially increase the risk of breast cancer. Tests can sometimes show the presence of these rare, specific gene changes in families with many women who have had breast cancer, and health care providers may suggest ways to try to reduce the risk of breast cancer or to improve the detection of this disease in women who have these genetic changes.

    Also, researchers have found specific regions on certain chromosomes that are linked to the risk of breast cancer. If a woman has a genetic change in one or more of these regions, the risk of breast cancer may be slightly increased. The risk increases with the number of genetic changes that are found. Although these genetic changes are more common among women than BRCA1 or BRCA2, the risk of breast cancer is far lower.


  • Radiation therapy to the chest: Women who had radiation therapy to the chest (including the breasts) before age 30 are at an increased risk of breast cancer. This includes women treated with radiation for Hodgkin lymphoma. Studies show that the younger a woman was when she received radiation treatment, the higher her risk of breast cancer later in life.


  • Reproductive and menstrual history:


    • The older a woman is when she has her first child, the greater her chance of breast cancer.


    • Women who never had children are at an increased risk of breast cancer.


    • Women who had their first menstrual period before age 12 are at an increased risk of breast cancer.


    • Women who went through menopause after age 55 are at an increased risk of breast cancer.


    • Women who take menopausal hormone therapy for many years have an increased risk of breast cancer.


  • Race: In the United States, breast cancer is diagnosed more often in white women than in African American/black, Hispanic/Latina, Asian/Pacific Islander, or American Indian/Alaska Native women.


  • Breast density: Breasts appear on a mammogram (breast x-ray) as having areas of dense and fatty (not dense) tissue. Women whose mammograms show a larger area of dense tissue than the mammograms of women of the same age are at increased risk of breast cancer.


  • History of taking DES: DES was given to some pregnant women in the United States between about 1940 and 1971. (It is no longer given to pregnant women.) Women who took DES during pregnancy may have a slightly increased risk of breast cancer. The possible effects on their daughters are under study.


  • Being overweight or obese after menopause: The chance of getting breast cancer after menopause is higher in women who are overweight or obese.


  • Lack of physical activity: Women who are physically inactive throughout life may have an increased risk of breast cancer.


  • Drinking alcohol: Studies suggest that the more alcohol a woman drinks, the greater her risk of breast cancer.

Having a risk factor does not mean that a woman will get breast cancer. Most women who have risk factors never develop breast cancer.

Many other possible risk factors have been studied. For example, researchers are studying whether women who have a diet high in fat or who are exposed to certain substances in the environment have an increased risk of breast cancer. Researchers continue to study these and other possible risk factors.

Symptoms

Early breast cancer usually doesn't cause symptoms. But as the tumor grows, it can change how the breast looks or feels. The common changes include:

  • A lump or thickening in or near the breast or in the underarm area


  • A change in the size or shape of the breast


  • Dimpling or puckering in the skin of the breast


  • A nipple turned inward into the breast


  • Discharge (fluid) from the nipple, especially if it's bloody


  • Scaly, red, or swollen skin on the breast, nipple, or areola (the dark area of skin at the center of the breast). The skin may have ridges or pitting so that it looks like the skin of an orange.

You should see your health care provider about any symptom that does not go away. Most often, these symptoms are not due to cancer. Another health problem could cause them. If you have any of these symptoms, you should tell your health care provider so that the problems can be diagnosed and treated.

Detection and diagnosis

Your doctor can check for breast cancer before you have any symptoms. During an office visit, your doctor will ask about your personal and family medical history. You'll have a physical exam. Your doctor may order one or more imaging tests, such as a mammogram.

Doctors recommend that women have regular clinical breast exams and mammograms to find breast cancer early. Treatment is more likely to work well when breast cancer is detected early.

Clinical breast exam

During a clinical breast exam, your health care provider checks your breasts. You may be asked to raise your arms over your head, let them hang by your sides, or press your hands against your hips.

Your health care provider looks for differences in size or shape between your breasts. The skin of your breasts is checked for a rash, dimpling, or other abnormal signs. Your nipples may be squeezed to check for fluid.

Using the pads of the fingers to feel for lumps, your health care provider checks your entire breast, underarm, and collarbone area. A lump is generally the size of a pea before anyone can feel it. The exam is done on one side and then the other. Your health care provider checks the lymph nodes near the breast to see if they are enlarged.

If you have a lump, your health care provider will feel its size, shape, and texture. Your health care provider will also check to see if the lump moves easily. Benign lumps often feel different from cancerous ones. Lumps that are soft, smooth, round, and movable are likely to be benign. A hard, oddly shaped lump that feels firmly attached within the breast is more likely to be cancer, but further tests are needed to diagnose the problem.

Mammogram

A mammogram is an x-ray picture of tissues inside the breast. Mammograms can often show a breast lump before it can be felt. They also can show a cluster of tiny specks of calcium. These specks are called microcalcifications. Lumps or specks can be from cancer, precancerous cells, or other conditions. Further tests are needed to find out if abnormal cells are present.

Before they have symptoms, women should get regular screening mammograms to detect breast cancer early:

  • Women in their 40s and older should have mammograms every 1 or 2 years.


  • Women who are younger than 40 and have risk factors for breast cancer should ask their health care provider whether to have mammograms and how often to have them.

If the mammogram shows an abnormal area of the breast, your doctor may order clearer, more detailed images of that area. Doctors use diagnostic mammograms to learn more about unusual breast changes, such as a lump, pain, thickening, nipple discharge, or change in breast size or shape. Diagnostic mammograms may focus on a specific area of the breast. They may involve special techniques and more views than screening mammograms.

Other imaging tests

If an abnormal area is found during a clinical breast exam or with a mammogram, the doctor may order other imaging tests:

  • Ultrasound: A woman with a lump or other breast change may have an ultrasound test. An ultrasound device sends out sound waves that people can't hear. The sound waves bounce off breast tissues. A computer uses the echoes to create a picture. The picture may show whether a lump is solid, filled with fluid (a cyst), or a mixture of both. Cysts usually are not cancer. But a solid lump may be cancer.


  • MRI: MRI uses a powerful magnet linked to a computer. It makes detailed pictures of breast tissue. These pictures can show the difference between normal and diseased tissue.

Biopsy

A biopsy is the removal of tissue to look for cancer cells. A biopsy is the only way to tell for sure if cancer is present.

You may need to have a biopsy if an abnormal area is found. An abnormal area may be felt during a clinical breast exam but not seen on a mammogram. Or an abnormal area could be seen on a mammogram but not be felt during a clinical breast exam. In this case, doctors can use imaging procedures (such as a mammogram, an ultrasound, or MRI) to help see the area and remove tissue.

Your doctor may refer you to a surgeon or breast disease specialist for a biopsy. The surgeon or doctor will remove fluid or tissue from your breast in one of several ways:

  • Fine-needle aspiration biopsy: Your doctor uses a thin needle to remove cells or fluid from a breast lump.


  • Core biopsy: Your doctor uses a wide needle to remove a sample of breast tissue.


  • Skin biopsy: If there are skin changes on your breast, your doctor may take a small sample of skin.


  • Surgical biopsy: Your surgeon removes a sample of tissue.


    • An incisional biopsy takes a part of the lump or abnormal area.


    • An excisional biopsy takes the entire lump or abnormal area.

A pathologist will check the tissue or fluid removed from your breast for cancer cells. If cancer cells are found, the pathologist can tell what kind of cancer it is. The most common type of breast cancer is ductal carcinoma. It begins in the cells that line the breast ducts. Lobular carcinoma is another type. It begins in the lobules of the breast.

Lab tests with breast tissue

If you are diagnosed with breast cancer, your doctor may order special lab tests on the breast tissue that was removed:

  • Hormone receptor tests: Some breast tumors need hormones to grow. These tumors have receptors for the hormones estrogen, progesterone, or both. If the hormone receptor tests show that the breast tumor has these receptors, then hormone therapy is most often recommended as a treatment option.

  • HER2/neu test: HER2/neu protein is found on some types of cancer cells. This test shows whether the tissue either has too much HER2/neu protein or too many copies of its gene. If the breast tumor has too much HER2/neu, then targeted therapy may be a treatment option.

It may take several weeks to get the results of these tests. The test results help your doctor decide which cancer treatments may be options for you.

You may want to ask your doctor these questions before having a biopsy:
  • What kind of biopsy will I have? Why?
  • How long will it take? Will I be awake? Will it hurt? Will I have anesthesia? What kind?
  • Are there any risks? What are the chances of infection or bleeding after the biopsy?
  • Will I have a scar?
  • How soon will I know the results?
  • If I do have cancer, who will talk with me about the next steps? When?

Quick GuideBreast Cancer Diagnosis and Treatment

Breast Cancer Diagnosis and Treatment

Staging

If the biopsy shows that you have breast cancer, your doctor needs to learn the extent (stage) of the disease to help you choose the best treatment. The stage is based on the size of the cancer, whether the cancer has invaded nearby tissues, and whether the cancer has spread to other parts of the body.

Staging may involve blood tests and other tests:

  • Bone scan: The doctor injects a small amount of a radioactive substance into a blood vessel. It travels through the bloodstream and collects in the bones. A machine called a scanner detects and measures the radiation. The scanner makes pictures of the bones. The pictures may show cancer that has spread to the bones.


  • CT scan: Doctors sometimes use CT scans to look for breast cancer that has spread to the liver or lungs. An x-ray machine linked to a computer takes a series of detailed pictures of your chest or abdomen. You may receive contrast material by injection into a blood vessel in your arm or hand. The contrast material makes abnormal areas easier to see.


  • Lymph node biopsy: The stage often is not known until after surgery to remove the tumor in your breast and one or more lymph nodes under your arm. Surgeons use a method called sentinel lymph node biopsy to remove the lymph node most likely to have breast cancer cells. The surgeon injects a blue dye, a radioactive substance, or both near the breast tumor. Or the surgeon may inject a radioactive substance under the nipple. The surgeon then uses a scanner to find the sentinel lymph node containing the radioactive substance or looks for the lymph node stained with dye. The sentinel node is removed and checked for cancer cells. Cancer cells may appear first in the sentinel node before spreading to other lymph nodes and other places in the body.

These tests can show whether the cancer has spread and, if so, to what parts of your body. When breast cancer spreads, cancer cells are often found in lymph nodes under the arm (axillary lymph nodes). Also, breast cancer can spread to almost any other part of the body, such as the bones, liver, lungs, and brain.

When breast cancer spreads from its original place to another part of the body, the new tumor has the same kind of abnormal cells and the same name as the primary (original) tumor. For example, if breast cancer spreads to the bones, the cancer cells in the bones are actually breast cancer cells. The disease is metastatic breast cancer, not bone cancer. For that reason, it is treated as breast cancer, not bone cancer. Doctors call the new tumor "distant" or metastatic disease.

These are the stages of breast cancer:

Stage 0 is sometimes used to describe abnormal cells that are not invasive cancer. For example, Stage 0 is used for ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS). DCIS is diagnosed when abnormal cells are in the lining of a breast duct, but the abnormal cells have not invaded nearby breast tissue or spread outside the duct. Although many doctors don't consider DCIS to be cancer, DCIS sometimes becomes invasive breast cancer if not treated.

Stage I is an early stage of invasive breast cancer. Cancer cells have invaded breast tissue beyond where the cancer started, but the cells have not spread beyond the breast. The tumor is no more than 2 centimeters (three-quarters of an inch) across. 

Stage II is one of the following:

  • The tumor is no more than 2 centimeters (three-quarters of an inch) across. The cancer has spread to the lymph nodes under the arm.


  • The tumor is between 2 and 5 centimeters (three-quarters of an inch to 2 inches). The cancer has not spread to the lymph nodes under the arm.


  • The tumor is between 2 and 5 centimeters (three-quarters of an inch to 2 inches). The cancer has spread to the lymph nodes under the arm.


  • The tumor is larger than 5 centimeters (2 inches). The cancer has not spread to the lymph nodes under the arm.

Stage III is locally advanced cancer. It is divided into Stage IIIA, IIIB, and IIIC.

  • Stage IIIA is one of the following:


    • The tumor is no more than 5 centimeters (2 inches) across. The cancer has spread to underarm lymph nodes that are attached to each other or to other structures. Or the cancer may have spread to lymph nodes behind the breastbone.


    • The tumor is more than 5 centimeters across. The cancer has spread to underarm lymph nodes that are either alone or attached to each other or to other structures. Or the cancer may have spread to lymph nodes behind the breastbone.


  • Stage IIIB is a tumor of any size that has grown into the chest wall or the skin of the breast. It may be associated with swelling of the breast or with nodules (lumps) in the breast skin:


    • The cancer may have spread to lymph nodes under the arm.


    • The cancer may have spread to underarm lymph nodes that are attached to each other or other structures. Or the cancer may have spread to lymph nodes behind the breastbone.


    • Inflammatory breast cancer is a rare type of breast cancer. The breast looks red and swollen because cancer cells block the lymph vessels in the skin of the breast. When a doctor diagnoses inflammatory breast cancer, it is at least Stage IIIB, but it could be more advanced.


  • Stage IIIC is a tumor of any size. It has spread in one of the following ways:


    • The cancer has spread to the lymph nodes behind the breastbone and under the arm.


    • The cancer has spread to the lymph nodes above or below the collarbone.

Stage IV is distant metastatic cancer. The cancer has spread to other parts of the body, such as the bones or liver.

Recurrent cancer is cancer that has come back after a period of time when it could not be detected. Even when the cancer seems to be completely destroyed, the disease sometimes returns because undetected cancer cells remained somewhere in your body after treatment. It may return in the breast or chest wall. Or it may return in any other part of the body, such as the bones, liver, lungs, or brain.

Treatment

Women with breast cancer have many treatment options. The treatment that's best for one woman may not be best for another.

The options are surgery, radiation therapy, hormone therapy, chemotherapy, and targeted therapy. You may receive more than one type of treatment. The treatment options are described below.

Surgery and radiation therapy are types of local therapy. They remove or destroy cancer in the breast.

Hormone therapy, chemotherapy, and targeted therapy are types of systemic therapy. The drug enters the bloodstream and destroys or controls cancer throughout the body.

The treatment that's right for you depends mainly on the stage of the cancer, the results of the hormone receptor tests, the result of the HER2/neu test, and your general health.

You may want to talk with your doctor about taking part in a clinical trial, a research study of new treatment methods. Clinical trials are an important option for women at any stage of breast cancer.

Your doctor can describe your treatment choices, the expected results, and the possible side effects. Because cancer therapy often damages healthy cells and tissues, side effects are common. Before treatment starts, ask your health care team about possible side effects, how to prevent or reduce these effects, and how treatment may change your normal activities.

You may want to know how you will look during and after treatment. You and your health care team can work together to develop a treatment plan that meets your medical and personal needs.

Your doctor may refer you to a specialist, or you may ask for a referral. Specialists who treat breast cancer include surgeons, medical oncologists, and radiation oncologists. You also may be referred to a plastic surgeon or reconstructive surgeon. Your health care team may also include an oncology nurse and a registered dietitian.

At any stage of disease, supportive care is available to control pain and other symptoms, to relieve the side effects of treatment, and to ease emotional concerns. Information about such care is available on the NCI Web site at http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/coping and from the NCI Cancer Information Service at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237) or at LiveHelp (http://www.cancer.gov/help).

You may want to ask your doctor these questions before you begin treatment:
  • What did the hormone receptor tests show? What did other lab tests show? Would genetic testing be helpful to me or my family?
  • Do any lymph nodes show signs of cancer?
  • What is the stage of the disease? Has the cancer spread?
  • What are my treatment choices? Which do you recommend for me? Why?
  • What are the expected benefits of each kind of treatment?
  • What can I do to prepare for treatment?
  • Will I need to stay in the hospital? If so, for how long?
  • What are the risks and possible side effects of each treatment? How can side effects be managed?
  • What is the treatment likely to cost? Will my insurance cover it?
  • How will treatment affect my normal activities?
  • Would a research study (clinical trial) be appropriate for me?
  • Can you recommend other doctors who could give me a second opinion about my treatment options?
  • How often should I have checkups?

Surgery

Surgery is the most common treatment for breast cancer. Your doctor can explain each type, discuss and compare the benefits and risks, and describe how each will change the way you look:

  • Breast-sparing surgery: This is an operation to remove the cancer but not the breast. It's also called breast-conserving surgery. It can be a lumpectomy or a segmental mastectomy (also called a partial mastectomy). Sometimes an excisional biopsy is the only surgery a woman needs because the surgeon removed the whole lump.


  • Mastectomy: This is an operation to remove the entire breast (or as much of the breast tissue as possible). In some cases, a skin-sparing mastectomy may be an option. For this approach, the surgeon removes as little skin as possible.

The surgeon usually removes one or more lymph nodes from under the arm to check for cancer cells. If cancer cells are found in the lymph nodes, other cancer treatments will be needed.

You may choose to have breast reconstruction. This is plastic surgery to rebuild the shape of the breast. It may be done at the same time as the cancer surgery or later. If you're considering breast reconstruction, you may wish to talk with a plastic surgeon before having cancer surgery.

In breast-sparing surgery, the surgeon removes the cancer in the breast and some normal tissue around it. The surgeon may also remove lymph nodes under the arm. The surgeon sometimes removes some of the lining over the chest muscles below the tumor.

In total (simple) mastectomy, the surgeon removes the whole breast. Some lymph nodes under the arm may also be removed.

In modified radical mastectomy, the surgeon removes the whole breast and most or all of the lymph nodes under the arm. Often, the lining over the chest muscles is removed. A small chest muscle also may be taken out to make it easier to remove the lymph nodes.

The time it takes to heal after surgery is different for each woman. Surgery causes pain and tenderness. Medicine can help control the pain. Before surgery, you should discuss the plan for pain relief with your doctor or nurse. After surgery, your doctor can adjust the plan if you need more relief.

Any kind of surgery also carries a risk of infection, bleeding, or other problems. You should tell your health care team right away if you develop any problems.

You may feel off balance if you've had one or both breasts removed. You may feel more off balance if you have large breasts. This imbalance can cause discomfort in your neck and back.

Also, the skin where your breast was removed may feel tight. Your arm and shoulder muscles may feel stiff and weak. These problems usually go away. The doctor, nurse, or physical therapist can suggest exercises to help you regain movement and strength in your arm and shoulder. Exercise can also reduce stiffness and pain. You may be able to begin gentle exercise within days of surgery.

Because nerves may be injured or cut during surgery, you may have numbness and tingling in your chest, underarm, shoulder, and upper arm. These feelings usually go away within a few weeks or months. But for some women, numbness does not go away.

Removing the lymph nodes under the arm slows the flow of lymph fluid. The fluid may build up in your arm and hand and cause swelling. This swelling is called lymphedema. It can develop soon after surgery or months or even years later. You'll always need to protect the arm and hand on the treated side of your body from cuts, burns, or other injuries. Information about preventing and treating lymphedema is available on the NCI Web site at http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/coping and from Information Specialists at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237) or LiveHelp (http://www.cancer.gov/help).

You may want to ask your doctor these questions before having surgery:
  • What kinds of surgery can I consider? Is breast-sparing surgery an option for me? Is a skin-sparing mastectomy an option? Which operation do you recommend for me? Why?
  • Will any lymph nodes be removed? How many? Why?
  • How will I feel after the operation? Will I have to stay in the hospital?
  • Will I need to learn how to take care of myself or my incision when I get home? Where will the scars be? What will they look like?
  • If I decide to have plastic surgery to rebuild my breast, how and when can that be done? Can you suggest a plastic surgeon for me to contact?
  • Will I have to do special exercises to help regain motion and strength in my arm and shoulder? Will a physical therapist or nurse show me how to do the exercises?
  • Is there someone I can talk with who has had the same surgery I'll be having?
  • How often will I need checkups?

Quick GuideBreast Cancer Diagnosis and Treatment

Breast Cancer Diagnosis and Treatment

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy (also called radiotherapy) uses high-energy rays to kill cancer cells. It affects cells only in the part of the body that is treated. Radiation therapy may be used after surgery to destroy breast cancer cells that remain in the area.

Doctors use two types of radiation therapy to treat breast cancer. Some women receive both types:

  • External radiation therapy: The radiation comes from a large machine outside the body. You will go to a hospital or clinic for treatment. Treatments are usually 5 days a week for 4 to 6 weeks. External radiation is the most common type used for breast cancer.


  • Internal radiation therapy (implant radiation therapy or brachytherapy): The doctor places one or more thin tubes inside the breast through a tiny incision. A radioactive substance is loaded into the tube. The treatment session may last for a few minutes, and the substance is removed. When it's removed, no radioactivity remains in your body. Internal radiation therapy may be repeated every day for a week.

Side effects depend mainly on the dose and type of radiation. It's common for the skin in the treated area to become red, dry, tender, and itchy. Your breast may feel heavy and tight. Internal radiation therapy may make your breast look red or bruised. These problems usually go away over time.

Bras and tight clothes may rub your skin and cause soreness. You may want to wear loose-fitting cotton clothes during this time.

Gentle skin care also is important. You should check with your doctor before using any deodorants, lotions, or creams on the treated area. Toward the end of treatment, your skin may become moist and "weepy." Exposing this area to air as much as possible can help the skin heal. After treatment is over, the skin will slowly heal. However, there may be a lasting change in the color of your skin.

You're likely to become very tired during radiation therapy, especially in the later weeks of treatment. Resting is important, but doctors usually advise patients to try to stay active, unless it leads to pain or other problems.

You may wish to discuss with your doctor the possible long-term effects of radiation therapy. For example, radiation therapy to the chest may harm the lung or heart. Also, it can change the size of your breast and the way it looks. If any of these problems occur, your health care team can tell you how to manage them.

You may want to ask your doctor these questions before having radiation therapy:
  • Which type of radiation therapy can I consider? Are both types an option for me?
  • When will treatment start? When will it end? How often will I have treatments?
  • How will I feel during treatment? Will I need to stay in the hospital? Will I be able to drive myself to and from treatment?
  • What can I do to take care of myself before, during, and after treatment?
  • How will we know the treatment is working?
  • Will treatment harm my skin?
  • How will my chest look afterward?
  • Are there any lasting effects?
  • What is the chance that the cancer will come back in my breast?
  • How often will I need checkups?

Hormone therapy

Hormone therapy may also be called anti-hormone treatment. If lab tests show that the tumor in your breast has hormone receptors, then hormone therapy may be an option. Hormone therapy keeps cancer cells from getting or using the natural hormones (estrogen and progesterone) they need to grow.

Options before menopause

If you have not gone through menopause, the options include:

  • Tamoxifen: This drug can prevent the original breast cancer from returning and also helps prevent the development of new cancers in the other breast. As treatment for metastatic breast cancer, tamoxifen slows or stops the growth of cancer cells that are in the body. It's a pill that you take every day for 5 years.


  • In general, the side effects of tamoxifen are similar to some of the symptoms of menopause. The most common are hot flashes and vaginal discharge. Others are irregular menstrual periods, thinning bones, headaches, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, vaginal dryness or itching, irritation of the skin around the vagina, and skin rash. Serious side effects are rare, but they include blood clots, strokes, uterine cancer, and cataracts.

  • LH-RH agonist: This type of drug can prevent the ovaries from making estrogen. The estrogen level falls slowly. Examples are leuprolide and goserelin. This type of drug may be given by injection under the skin in the stomach area. Side effects include hot flashes, headaches, weight gain, thinning bones, and bone pain.


  • Surgery to remove your ovaries: Until you go through menopause, your ovaries are your body's main source of estrogen. When the surgeon removes your ovaries, this source of estrogen is also removed. (A woman who has gone through menopause wouldn't benefit from this kind of surgery because her ovaries produce much less estrogen.) When the ovaries are removed, menopause occurs right away. The side effects are often more severe than those caused by natural menopause. Your health care team can suggest ways to cope with these side effects.

Options after menopause

If you have gone through menopause, the options include:

  • Aromatase inhibitor: This type of drug prevents the body from making a form of estrogen (estradiol). Examples are anastrazole, exemestane, and letrozole. Common side effects include hot flashes, nausea, vomiting, and painful bones or joints. Serious side effects include thinning bones and an increase in cholesterol.


  • Tamoxifen: Hormone therapy is given for at least 5 years. Women who have gone through menopause receive tamoxifen for 2 to 5 years. If tamoxifen is given for less than 5 years, then an aromatase inhibitor often is given to complete the 5 years. Some women have hormone therapy for more than 5 years. See above for more information about tamoxifen and its possible side effects.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer cells. The drugs that treat breast cancer are usually given through a vein (intravenous) or as a pill. You'll probably receive a combination of drugs.

You may receive chemotherapy in an outpatient part of the hospital, at the doctor's office, or at home. Some women need to stay in the hospital during treatment.

The side effects depend mainly on which drugs are given and how much. Chemotherapy kills fast-growing cancer cells, but the drugs can also harm normal cells that divide rapidly:

  • Blood cells: When drugs lower the levels of healthy blood cells, you're more likely to get infections, bruise or bleed easily, and feel very weak and tired. Your health care team will check for low levels of blood cells. If your levels are low, your health care team may stop the chemotherapy for a while or reduce the dose of the drug. There are also medicines that can help your body make new blood cells.


  • Cells in hair roots: Chemotherapy may cause hair loss. If you lose your hair, it will grow back after treatment, but the color and texture may be changed.


  • Cells that line the digestive tract: Chemotherapy can cause a poor appetite, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, or mouth and lip sores. Your health care team can give you medicines and suggest other ways to help with these problems.

Some drugs used for breast cancer can cause tingling or numbness in the hands or feet. This problem often goes away after treatment is over.

Other problems may not go away. For example, some of the drugs used for breast cancer may weaken the heart. Your doctor may check your heart before, during, and after treatment. A rare side effect of chemotherapy is that years after treatment, a few women have developed leukemia (cancer of the blood cells).

Some anticancer drugs can damage the ovaries. If you have not gone through menopause yet, you may have hot flashes and vaginal dryness. Your menstrual periods may no longer be regular or may stop. You may become infertile (unable to become pregnant). For women over the age of 35, this damage to the ovaries is likely to be permanent.

On the other hand, you may remain able to become pregnant during chemotherapy. Before treatment begins, you should talk with your doctor about birth control because many drugs given during the first trimester are known to cause birth defects.

Targeted therapy

Some women with breast cancer may receive drugs called targeted therapy. Targeted therapy uses drugs that block the growth of breast cancer cells. For example, targeted therapy may block the action of an abnormal protein (such as HER2) that stimulates the growth of breast cancer cells.

Trastuzumab (Herceptin®) or lapatinib (TYKERB®) may be given to a woman whose lab tests show that her breast tumor has too much HER2:

  • Trastuzumab: This drug is given through a vein. It may be given alone or with chemotherapy. Side effects that most commonly occur during the first treatment include fever and chills. Other possible side effects include weakness, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, headaches, difficulty breathing, and rashes. These side effects generally become less severe after the first treatment. Trastuzumab also may cause heart damage, heart failure, and serious breathing problems. Before and during treatment, your doctor will check your heart and lungs.

  • Lapatinib: The tablet is taken by mouth. Lapatinib is given with chemotherapy. Side effects include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, tiredness, mouth sores, and rashes. It can also cause red, painful hands and feet. Before treatment, your doctor will check your heart and liver. During treatment, your doctor will watch for signs of heart, lung, or liver problems.
You may want to ask your doctor these questions before having hormone therapy, chemotherapy, or targeted therapy:
  • What drugs will I be taking? What will they do?
  • When will treatment start? When will it end? How often will I have treatments?
  • Where will I have treatment?
  • What can I do to take care of myself during treatment?
  • How will we know the treatment is working?
  • Which side effects should I tell you about?
  • Will there be long-term effects?
  • How often will I need checkups?

Treatment choices by stage

Your treatment options depend on the stage of your disease and these factors:

  • The size of the tumor in relation to the size of your breast


  • The results of lab tests (such as whether the breast cancer cells need hormones to grow)


  • Whether you have gone through menopause


  • Your general health

Below are brief descriptions of common treatments for each stage. Other treatments may be appropriate for some women. Research studies (clinical trials) can be an option at all stages of breast cancer.

Stage 0 (DCIS)

Most women with DCIS have breast-sparing surgery followed by radiation therapy. Some women instead choose to have a total mastectomy. Women with DCIS may receive tamoxifen to reduce the risk of developing invasive breast cancer.

Stages I, II, IIIA, and some IIIC

Women with Stage I, II, IIIA, or operable IIIC breast cancer may have a combination of treatments. (Operable means the cancer can be treated with surgery.)

Some may have breast-sparing surgery followed by radiation therapy to the breast. This choice is common for women with Stage I or II breast cancer. Others decide to have a mastectomy.

With either approach, women (especially those with Stage II or IIIA breast cancer) often have lymph nodes under the arm removed.

Whether or not radiation therapy is used after mastectomy depends on the extent of the cancer. If cancer cells are found in 1 to 3 lymph nodes under the arm or if the tumor in the breast is large, the doctor sometimes suggests radiation therapy after mastectomy. If cancer cells are found in more than 3 lymph nodes under the arm, the doctor usually will suggest radiation therapy after mastectomy.

The choice between breast-sparing surgery (followed by radiation therapy) and mastectomy depends on many factors:

  • The size, location, and stage of the tumor


  • The size of the woman's breast


  • Certain features of the cancer


  • How the woman feels about how surgery will change her breast


  • How the woman feels about radiation therapy


  • The woman's ability to travel to a radiation treatment center

Some women have chemotherapy before surgery. This is called neoadjuvant therapy (treatment before the main treatment). Chemotherapy before surgery may shrink a large tumor so that breast-sparing surgery is possible. Women with large Stage II or IIIA breast tumors often choose this treatment.

After surgery, many women receive adjuvant therapy. Adjuvant therapy is treatment given after the main treatment to lower the chance of breast cancer returning. Radiation treatment is local therapy that can kill any remaining cancer cells in and near the breast. Women may also have hormone therapy, chemotherapy, targeted therapy, or a combination. These systemic therapies can destroy cancer cells that remain anywhere in the body. They can prevent or delay the cancer from coming back in the breast or elsewhere.

Stage IIIB and some Stage IIIC

Women with Stage IIIB (including inflammatory breast cancer) or inoperable Stage IIIC breast cancer have chemotherapy first, and then may be offered other treatments. (Inoperable means the cancer can't be treated with surgery without first shrinking the tumor.) They may also have targeted therapy.

If the chemotherapy or targeted therapy shrinks the tumor, then surgery may be possible:

  • Mastectomy: The surgeon removes the breast. In most cases, the lymph nodes under the arm are removed. After surgery, a woman may receive radiation therapy to the chest and underarm area.


  • Breast-sparing surgery: In rare cases, the surgeon removes the cancer but not the breast. The lymph nodes under the arm are usually removed. After surgery, a woman may receive radiation therapy to the breast and underarm area.

After surgery, the doctor will likely recommend chemotherapy, targeted therapy, hormone therapy, or a combination. This therapy may help prevent the disease from coming back in the breast or elsewhere.

Stage IV and Recurrent

Women with recurrent breast cancer will be treated based on where the cancer returned. If the cancer returned in the chest area, the doctor may suggest surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, hormone therapy, or a combination.

Women with Stage IV breast cancer or recurrent cancer that has spread to the bones, liver, or other areas usually have hormone therapy, chemotherapy, targeted therapy, or a combination. Radiation therapy may be used to control tumors in certain parts of the body. These treatments are not likely to cure the disease, but they may help a woman live longer.

Many women have supportive care along with anticancer treatments. Anticancer treatments are given to slow the progress of the disease. Supportive care helps manage pain, other symptoms of cancer, or the side effects of treatment (such as nausea). This care can help a woman feel better physically and emotionally. Supportive care does not aim to extend life. Some women with advanced cancer decide to have only supportive care.

Second opinion

Before starting treatment, you might want a second opinion from another doctor about your diagnosis and treatment plan. Some women worry that their doctor will be offended if they ask for a second opinion. Usually the opposite is true. Most doctors welcome a second opinion. And many health insurance companies will pay for a second opinion if you or your doctor requests it. Some companies require a second opinion.

If you get a second opinion, the doctor may agree with your first doctor's diagnosis and treatment plan. Or the second doctor may suggest another approach. Either way, you'll have more information and perhaps a greater sense of control. You may also feel more confident about the decisions you make, knowing that you've looked carefully at your options.

It may take some time and effort to gather your medical records and see another doctor. Usually it's not a problem if it takes you several weeks to get a second opinion. In most cases, the delay in starting treatment will not make treatment less effective. To make sure, you should discuss this possible delay with your doctor. Some women with breast cancer need treatment right away.

There are many ways to find a doctor for a second opinion. You can ask your doctor, a local or state medical society, a nearby hospital, or a medical school for names of specialists.

The NCI Cancer Information Service at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237) or at LiveHelp (http://www.cancer.gov/help) can tell you about nearby treatment centers.

Breast reconstruction

Some women who plan to have a mastectomy decide to have breast reconstruction. Other women prefer to wear a breast form (prosthesis) inside their bra. Others decide to do nothing after surgery. All of these options have pros and cons. What is right for one woman may not be right for another. What is important is that nearly every woman treated for breast cancer has choices.

Breast reconstruction may be done at the same time as the mastectomy, or later on. If radiation therapy is part of the treatment plan, some doctors suggest waiting until after radiation therapy is complete.

If you are thinking about breast reconstruction, you should talk to a plastic surgeon before the mastectomy, even if you plan to have your reconstruction later on.

There are many ways for a surgeon to reconstruct the breast. Some women choose to have breast implants, which are filled with saline or silicone gel. You can read about breast implants on the Food and Drug Administration Web site at http://www.fda.gov.

You also may have breast reconstruction with tissue that the plastic surgeon removes from another part of your body. Skin, muscle, and fat can come from your lower abdomen, back, or buttocks. The surgeon uses this tissue to create a breast shape.

The type of reconstruction that is best for you depends on your age, body type, and the type of cancer surgery that you had. The plastic surgeon can explain the risks and benefits of each type of reconstruction.

You may want to ask your doctor these questions about breast reconstruction:
  • Which type of surgery would give me the best results? How will I look afterward?
  • When can my reconstruction begin?
  • How many surgeries will I need?
  • What are the risks at the time of surgery? Later?
  • Will I have scars? Where? What will they look like?
  • If tissue from another part of my body is used, will there be any permanent changes where the tissue was removed?
  • What activities should I avoid? When can I return to my normal activities?
  • Will I need follow-up care?
  • How much will reconstruction cost? Will my health insurance pay for it?

Nutrition and physical activity

It's important for you to take very good care of yourself before, during, and after cancer treatment. Taking care of yourself includes eating well and staying as active as you can.

You need the right amount of calories to maintain a good weight. You also need enough protein to keep up your strength. Eating well may help you feel better and have more energy.

Sometimes, especially during or soon after treatment, you may not feel like eating. You may be uncomfortable or tired. You may find that foods don't taste as good as they used to. In addition, the side effects of treatment (such as poor appetite, nausea, vomiting, or mouth blisters) can make it hard to eat well. On the other hand, some women treated for breast cancer may have a problem with weight gain.

Your doctor, a registered dietitian, or another health care provider can suggest ways to help you meet your nutrition needs.

Many women find that they feel better when they stay active. Walking, yoga, swimming, and other activities can keep you strong and increase your energy. Exercise may reduce nausea and pain and make treatment easier to handle. It also can help relieve stress. Whatever physical activity you choose, be sure to talk to your doctor before you start. Also, if your activity causes you pain or other problems, be sure to let your doctor or nurse know.

Follow-up care

You'll need regular checkups after treatment for breast cancer. Checkups help ensure that any changes in your health are noted and treated if needed. If you have any health problems between checkups, you should contact your doctor.

Your doctor will check for return of the cancer. Also, checkups help detect health problems that can result from cancer treatment.

You should report any changes in the treated area or in your other breast to the doctor right away. Tell your doctor about any health problems, such as pain, loss of appetite or weight, changes in menstrual cycles, unusual vaginal bleeding, or blurred vision. Also talk to your doctor about headaches, dizziness, shortness of breath, coughing or hoarseness, backaches, or digestive problems that seem unusual or that don't go away. Such problems may arise months or years after treatment. They may suggest that the cancer has returned, but they can also be symptoms of other health problems. It's important to share your concerns with your doctor so that problems can be diagnosed and treated as soon as possible.

Checkups usually include an exam of the neck, underarm, chest, and breast areas. Since a new breast cancer may develop, you should have regular mammograms. You probably won't need a mammogram of a reconstructed breast or if you had a mastectomy without reconstruction. Your doctor may order other imaging procedures or lab tests.

Sources of support

Learning that you have breast cancer can change your life and the lives of those close to you. These changes can be hard to handle. It's normal for you, your family, and your friends to need help coping with the feelings that such a diagnosis can bring.

Concerns about treatments and managing side effects, hospital stays, and medical bills are common. You may also worry about caring for your family, keeping your job, or continuing daily activities.

Several organizations offer special programs for women with breast cancer. Women who have had the disease serve as trained volunteers. They may talk with or visit women who have breast cancer, provide information, and lend emotional support. They often share their experiences with breast cancer treatment, breast reconstruction, and recovery.

You may be afraid that changes to your body will affect not only how you look but also how other people feel about you. You may worry that breast cancer and its treatment will affect your sexual relationships. Many couples find it helps to talk about their concerns. Some find that counseling or a couples' support group can be helpful.

Here's where you can go for support:

  • Doctors, nurses, and other members of your health care team can answer questions about treatment, working, or other activities.


  • Social workers, counselors, or members of the clergy can be helpful if you want to talk about your feelings or concerns. Often, social workers can suggest resources for financial aid, transportation, home care, or emotional support.


  • Support groups also can help. In these groups, women with breast cancer or their family members meet with other patients or their families to share what they have learned about coping with the disease and the effects of treatment. Groups may offer support in person, over the telephone, or on the Internet. You may want to talk with a member of your health care team about finding a support group.


  • Women with breast cancer often get together in support groups, but please keep in mind that each woman is different. Ways that one woman deals with cancer may not be right for another. You may want to ask your health care provider about advice you receive from other women with breast cancer.


  • Information specialists at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237) and at LiveHelp (http://www.cancer.gov/help) can help you locate programs, services, and publications. They can send you a list of organizations that offer services to women with cancer.

Taking part in cancer research

Cancer research has led to real progress in the prevention, detection, and treatment of breast cancer. Continuing research offers hope that in the future even more women with breast cancer will be treated successfully.

Doctors all over the country are conducting many types of clinical trials (research studies in which people volunteer to take part). Clinical trials are designed to find out whether new approaches are safe and effective.

Even if the people in a trial do not benefit directly, they may still make an important contribution by helping doctors learn more about breast cancer and how to control it. Although clinical trials may pose some risks, doctors do all they can to protect their patients.

Doctors are trying to find better ways to care for women with breast cancer. They are studying many types of treatment and their combinations:

  • Radiation therapy: In women with early breast cancer who have had a lumpectomy, doctors are comparing the effectiveness of standard radiation therapy aimed at the whole breast to that of radiation therapy aimed at a smaller part of the breast.


  • Chemotherapy and targeted therapy: Researchers are testing new anticancer drugs and doses. They are looking at new drug combinations before surgery. They are also looking at new ways of combining chemotherapy with targeted therapy, hormone therapy, or radiation therapy. In addition, they are studying lab tests that may predict whether a woman might be helped by chemotherapy.


  • Hormone therapy: Doctors are testing several types of hormone therapy, including aromatase inhibitors. They are looking at whether hormone therapy before surgery may help shrink the tumor.


  • Supportive care: Doctors are looking at ways to lessen the side effects of treatment, such as lymphedema after surgery. They are looking at ways to reduce pain and improve quality of life.

If you're interested in being part of a clinical trial, talk with your doctor.

The NCI Web site includes a section on clinical trials at http://www.cancer.gov/clinicaltrials. It has general information about clinical trials as well as detailed information about specific ongoing studies of breast cancer. Information specialists at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237) or at LiveHelp at http://www.cancer.gov/help can answer questions and provide information about clinical trials.

SOURCE:

Portions of the above information have been provided with the kind permission of the National Cancer Institute (www.cancer.gov).


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Reviewed on 10/15/2009

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