Breast cancer is a kind of cancer that develops from breast cells.
Breast cancer usually starts off in the inner lining of milk ducts or the lobules that supply them with milk. A malignant tumor can spread to other parts of the body. A breast cancer that started off in the lobules is known as lobular carcinoma, while one that developed from the ducts is called ductal carcinoma.
The vast majority of breast cancer cases occur in females. This article focuses on breast cancer in women. We also have an article about male breast cancer.
Breast cancer is the most common invasive cancer in females worldwide. It accounts for 16% of all female cancers and 22.9% of invasive cancers in women. 18.2% of all cancer deaths worldwide, including both males and females, are from breast cancer.
Breast cancer rates are much higher in developed nations compared to developing ones. There are several reasons for this, with possibly life-expectancy being one of the key factors - breast cancer is more common in elderly women; women in the richest countries live much longer than those in the poorest nations. The different lifestyles and eating habits of females in rich and poor countries are also contributory factors, experts believe.
According to the National Cancer Institute, 232,340 female breast cancers and 2,240 male breast cancers are reported in the USA each year, as well as about 39,620 deaths caused by the disease.
Contents of this article:
The anatomy of a female breast
1. Chest wall. 2. Pectoralis muscles. 3. Lobules (glands that make milk). 4. Nipple surface. 5. Areola. 6. Lactiferous duct tube that carries milk to the nipple. 7. Fatty tissue. 8. Skin.
Image by Patrick J. Lynch and Morgoth666
A mature human female's breast consists of fat, connective tissue and thousands of lobules - tiny glands which produce milk. The milk of a breastfeeding mother goes through tiny ducts (tubes) and is delivered through the nipple.
The breast, like any other part of the body, consists of billions of microscopic cells. These cells multiply in an orderly fashion - new cells are made to replace the ones that died.
In cancer, the cells multiply uncontrollably, and there are too many cells, progressively more and more than there should be.
Cancer that begins in the lactiferous duct (milk duct), known as ductal carcinoma, is the most common type. Cancer that begins in the lobules, known as lobular carcinoma, is much less common.
Symptoms of breast cancer
Some of the possible early signs of breast cancer
A symptom is only felt by the patient, and is described to the doctor or nurse, such as a headache or pain. A sign is something the patient and others can detect, for example, a rash or swelling.
The first symptoms of breast cancer are usually an area of thickened tissue in the woman's breast, or a lump. The majority of lumps are not cancerous; however, women should get them checked by a health care professional.
Women who detect any of the following signs or symptoms should tell their doctor (NHS, UK):
- A lump in a breast
- A pain in the armpits or breast that does not seem to be related to the woman's menstrual period
- Pitting or redness of the skin of the breast; like the skin of an orange
- A rash around (or on) one of the nipples
- A swelling (lump) in one of the armpits
- An area of thickened tissue in a breast
- One of the nipples has a discharge; sometimes it may contain blood
- The nipple changes in appearance; it may become sunken or inverted
- The size or the shape of the breast changes
- The nipple-skin or breast-skin may have started to peel, scale or flake.
On the next page we look at the causes of breast cancer and how breast cancer can be diagnosed.