Breast cancer

Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer among women in the United States (other than skin cancer). Each year, more than 180,000 women in this country learn they have breast cancer. The National Cancer Institute (NCI) has written this booklet to help patients with breast cancer and their families and friends better understand this disease. We hope others will read it as well to learn more about breast cancer.

This booklet discusses screening and early detection, symptoms, diagnosis, treatment, and rehabilitation. It also has information to help patients cope with breast cancer.

Words that may be new to readers are printed in italics. Definitions of these and other terms related to breast cancer are listed in the Glossary section. For some words, a "sounds-like" spelling is also given.

Male Breast Cancer

Breast cancer affects more than 1,000 men in this country each year. Although this booklet was written mainly for women, much of the information on symptoms, diagnosis, treatment, and living with the disease applies to men as well. (The Early Detection section does not apply to men. Experts do not recommend routine screening for men.)

Cancer research has led to real progress against breast cancer--better survival and improved quality of life. And knowledge about breast cancer is increasing. The Cancer Information Service and other NCI resources listed in the National Cancer Institute Information Resources section can provide the latest, most accurate information on breast cancer.

The CIS staff uses a National Cancer Institute cancer information database called PDQ and other NCI resources to answer callers' questions. The staff can send callers information from PDQ and other NCI materials about cancer, its treatment, and living with the disease, including those listed in the Other Booklets section. 

What Is Cancer?

Cancer is a group of many different diseases that have some important things in common. They all arise in cells, the body's basic unit of life. To understand different types of cancer, it is helpful to know about normal cells and what happens when they become cancerous.

The body is made up of many types of cells. Normally, cells grow and divide to produce more cells only when the body needs them. This orderly process helps keep the body healthy. Sometimes cells keep dividing when new cells are not needed. These cells may form a mass of extra tissue called a growth or tumor. Tumors can be benign or malignant.

This booklet deals with breast cancer. For more information about benign breast lumps and other benign breast changes, read NCI's booklet, Understanding Breast Changes: A Health Guide for All Women, which is available from the Cancer Information Service at 1-800-4-CANCER. 

The Breasts

Each breast has 15 to 20 overlapping sections called lobes. Within each lobe are many smaller lobules, which end in dozens of tiny bulbs that can produce milk. The lobes, lobules, and bulbs are all linked by thin tubes called ducts. These ducts lead to the nipple in the center of a dark area of skin called the areola. Fat fills the spaces around the lobules and ducts. There are no muscles in the breast, but muscles lie under each breast and cover the ribs.

Each breast also contains blood vessels and vessels that carry colorless fluid called lymph. The lymph vessels lead to small bean-shaped organs called lymph nodes. Clusters of lymph nodes are found near the breast in the axilla (under the arm), above the collarbone, and in the chest. Lymph nodes are also found in many other parts of the body.

[Diagram of breast]

Types of Breast Cancer

The most common type of breast cancer begins in the lining of the ducts and is called ductal carcinoma. Another type, called lobular carcinoma, arises in the lobules.

When breast cancer spreads outside the breast, cancer cells are often found in the lymph nodes under the arm (axillary lymph nodes). If the cancer has reached these nodes, it may mean that cancer cells have spread to other parts of the body--other lymph nodes and other organs, such as the bones, liver, or lungs--via the lymphatic system or the bloodstream.

Cancer that spreads is the same disease and has the same name as the original (primary) cancer. When breast cancer spreads, it is called metastatic breast cancer, even though the secondary tumor is in another organ. Doctors sometimes call this "distant" disease. 

Risk Factors for Breast Cancer

The risk of breast cancer increases gradually as a woman gets older. This disease is uncommon in women under the age of 35. All women age 40 and older are at risk for breast cancer. However, most breast cancers occur in women over the age of 50, and the risk is especially high for women over age 60.

Research has shown that the following conditions place a woman at increased risk for breast cancer:

Other factors associated with an increased risk for breast cancer include:

Also at a somewhat increased risk for developing breast cancer are women who started menstruating at an early age (before age 12), experienced menopause late (after age 55), never had children, or took hormone replacement therapy or birth control pills for long periods of time. Each of these factors increases the amount of time a woman's body is exposed to estrogen. The longer this exposure, the more likely she is to develop breast cancer.

In most cases, doctors cannot explain why a woman develops breast cancer. Studies show that most women who develop breast cancer have none of the risk factors listed above, other than the risk that comes with growing older. Also, most women with known risk factors do not get breast cancer. Scientists are conducting research into the causes of breast cancer to learn more about risk factors and ways of preventing this disease. 

Early Detection

When breast cancer is found and treated early, the chances for survival are better. Women can take an active part in the early detection of breast cancer by having regular screening mammograms and clinical breast exams (breast exams performed by health professionals). Some women also perform breast self-exams.

A screening mammogram is the best tool available for finding breast cancer early, before symptoms appear. A mammogram is a special kind of x-ray. It is different from a chest x-ray or x-rays of other parts of the body. Screening mammograms are used to look for breast changes in women who have no signs of breast cancer.

Mammograms can often detect breast cancer before it can be felt. Also, a mammogram can show small deposits of calcium in the breast. Although most calcium deposits are benign, a cluster of very tiny specks of calcium (called microcalcifications) may be an early sign of cancer.

Although mammograms are the best way to find breast cancer early, they do have some limitations. A mammogram may miss some cancers that are present (false negative) or may find things that turn out not to be cancer (false positive). And detecting a tumor early does not guarantee that a woman's life will be saved. Some fast-growing cancers may already have spread to other parts of the body before being detected.

Still, regularly scheduled screening mammograms, together with clinical breast exams, offer the best chance of finding and treating breast cancer early. Studies show that mammograms reduce the risk of dying from breast cancer. The National Cancer Institute recommends that women in their forties and older have mammograms on a regular basis, every 1 to 2 years.

Women should talk with their doctor about factors that can increase the risk for breast cancer. Women of any age who are at higher risk for this disease should ask their doctor when to begin and how often to have screening mammograms and breast exams.

Some women perform monthly breast self-exams to check for any changes in their breasts. When doing a breast self-exam, it's important to remember that each woman's breasts are different, and that changes can occur because of aging, the menstrual cycle, pregnancy, menopause, or taking birth control pills or other hormones. It is normal for the breasts to feel a little lumpy and uneven. Also, it is common for a woman's breasts to be swollen and tender right before or during her menstrual period. Remember that for women in their forties and older, a monthly breast self-exam is not a substitute for regularly scheduled screening mammograms and clinical breast exams by a health professional. 


Early breast cancer usually does not cause pain. In fact, when breast cancer first develops, there may be no symptoms at all. But as the cancer grows, it can cause changes that women should watch for:

A woman should see her doctor about any symptoms like these. Most often, they are not cancer, but it's important to check with the doctor so that any problems can be diagnosed and treated as early as possible. 


An abnormal area on a mammogram, a lump, or other changes in the breast can be caused by cancer or by other, less serious problems. To find out the cause of any of these signs or symptoms, a woman's doctor does a careful physical exam and asks about her personal and family medical history. 

Based on these exams, the doctor may decide that no further tests are needed and no treatment is necessary. (In such cases, the doctor may need to check the woman regularly to watch for any changes.)

Often, however, fluid or tissue must be removed from the breast to make a diagnosis. A woman's doctor may refer her for further evaluation to a surgeon or other health care professional who has experience with breast diseases. These doctors may perform:


When a woman needs a biopsy, these are some questions she may want to ask her doctor:

  • What type of biopsy will I have? Why?
  • How long will it take? Will I be awake? Will it hurt?
  • How soon will I know the results?
  • If I do have cancer, who will talk with me about treatment? When?

When Cancer Is Found

When cancer is found, the pathologist can tell what kind of cancer it is (whether it began in a duct or a lobule) and whether it is invasive (has invaded nearby tissues in the breast).

Special lab tests of the tissue help the doctor learn more about the cancer. For example, hormone receptor tests (estrogen and progesterone receptor tests) can help predict whether the cancer is sensitive to hormones. Positive test results mean hormones help the cancer grow, and the cancer is likely to respond to hormonal therapy. More information about hormonal therapy can be found in the Treatment section. Other lab tests are sometimes done to help the doctor predict whether the cancer is likely to grow slowly or quickly. The doctor may order x-rays and blood tests. The doctor may also do special exams of the bones, liver, or lungs because breast cancer may spread to these areas.


If the diagnosis is cancer, the patient may want to ask these questions:

  • What kind of breast cancer do I have? Is it invasive?
  • What did the hormone receptor test show? What other lab tests were done on the tumor tissue, and what did they show?
  • How will this information help in decidng what type of treatment or further tests to recommend?

The patient's doctor may refer her to other doctors who specialize in treating cancer, or she may ask for a referral. Treatment generally begins within a few weeks after the diagnosis. There will be time for the woman to talk with the doctor about her treatment choices, to get a second opinion, and to prepare herself and her loved ones. 


Through continuing research into new treatment methods, women now have more treatment options and hope for survival than ever before. The treatment options for each woman depend on the size and location of the tumor in her breast, the results of lab tests (including hormone receptor tests), and the stage (or extent) of the disease. To develop a treatment plan to fit each patient's needs, the doctor also considers a woman's age and menopausal status, her general health, and the size of her breasts.

Many women want to learn all they can about their disease and their treatment choices so that they can take an active part in decisions about their medical care. They are likely to have many questions and concerns about their treatment options.

The doctor is the best person to answer questions about treatment for a particular patient: what her treatment choices are, how successful her treatment is expected to be, and how much it is likely to cost. Most patients also want to know how they will look after treatment and whether they will have to change their normal activities. Also, the patient may want to talk with her doctor about taking part in a clinical trial, a research study involving people, of new treatment methods. Look at the Clinical Trials section of The Promise of Cancer Research for more information.

Calling the National Cancer Institute's Cancer Information Service at 1-800-4-CANCER is another way to gather up-to-date treatment information, including information about current clinical trials. Cancer information specialists can provide thorough, personalized answers to questions about breast cancer treatment. They can suggest other sources of information and support. They can also talk with callers about questions to ask the doctor. The National Cancer Institute also has a Web site at that offers detailed information about clinical trials for patients, health professionals, and the public.

Many patients find it helpful to make a list of questions before seeing the doctor. To make it easier to remember what the doctor says, patients may take notes or ask whether they may use a tape recorder. Some patients also find that it helps to have a family member or friend with them when they see the doctor--to take part in the discussion, to take notes, or just to listen.

Here are some questions a woman may want to ask the doctor before treatment begins:
  • What are my treatment choices?
  • What are the expected benefits of each kind of treatment?
  • What are the risks and possible side effects of each treatment?
  • Are new treatments under study? Would a clinical trial be appropriate for me?

There is a lot to learn about breast cancer and its treatment. Patients should not feel that they need to ask all their questions or understand all the answers at once. They will have many other chances to ask the doctor to explain things that are not clear and to ask for more information. 

Planning Treatment

Before starting treatment, the patient might want a second opinion about the diagnosis and the treatment plan. Some insurance companies require a second opinion; others may cover a second opinion if the patient requests it. It may take a week or two to arrange to see another doctor. Studies show that a brief delay (up to several weeks) between biopsy and treatment does not make breast cancer treatment less effective. There are a number of ways to find a doctor for a second opinion:

Methods of Treatment

Methods of treatment for breast cancer are local or systemic. Local treatments are used to remove, destroy, or control the cancer cells in a specific area. Surgery and radiation therapy are local treatments. Systemic treatments are used to destroy or control cancer cells throughout the body. Chemotherapy and hormonal therapy are systemic treatments. A patient may have just one form of treatment or a combination. Different forms of treatment may be given at the same time or one after another.

Surgery is the most common treatment for breast cancer. Several types of surgery may be used. The doctor can explain each of them in detail, discuss and compare the benefits and risks of each type, and describe how each will affect the patient's appearance. An operation to remove the breast (or as much of the breast as possible) is a mastectomy. Breast reconstruction is often an option at the same time as the mastectomy, or later on. An operation

Nutrition Supplementation:


Beta-Carotene or Vitamin A 


Vitamin C

Co Q-10

A, B1, B2, B3, C and E together with zinc, selenium and molybdenum in various combinations were tested.
vitamin E supplement of 100-200 IU per day.

(A) retinol and zinc;

(B) riboflavin and niacin; (C) vitamin C and molybdenum; and  vitamin A, vitamin E,  and selenium. Iron, zinc, folic acid and calcium

Research has shown that deficiencies in micronutrients such as zinc and vitamins A and D reduce natural killer cell function, whereas supplemental zinc and vitamin C enhance their activity

Selenium is one of the most powerful anti-cancer substances ever discovered and has a role to play in treatment as well as prevention.

Coenzyme Q10 is another antioxidant with immune stimulating abilities. Coenzyme Q10 may work by increasing oxidative metabolism and free radical damage within these cancer cells.

Disclaimer: This information is intended as a guide only.   This information is offered to you with the understanding that it not be interpreted as medical or professional advice.  All medical information needs to be carefully reviewed with your health care provider.


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