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This information is produced and provided by the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The information in this topic may have changed since it was written. For the most current information, contact the National Cancer Institute via the Internet web site at http://cancer.gov or call 1-800-4-CANCER.
Breast cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the breast.
The breast is made up of lobes and ducts. Each breast has 15 to 20 sections called lobes. Each lobe has many smaller sections called lobules. Lobules end in dozens of tiny bulbs that can make milk. The lobes, lobules, and bulbs are linked by thin tubes called ducts. Anatomy of the female breast. The nipple and areola are shown on the outside of the breast. The lymph nodes, lobes, lobules, ducts, and other parts of the inside of the breast are also shown.
Each breast also has blood vessels and lymph vessels. The lymph vessels carry an almost colorless fluid called lymph. Lymph vessels carry lymph between lymph nodes. Lymph nodes are small bean-shaped structures that are found throughout the body. They filter substances in lymph and help fight infection and disease. Clusters of lymph nodes are found near the breast in the axilla (under the arm), above the collarbone, and in the chest.
The most common type of breast cancer is ductal carcinoma, which begins in the cells of the ducts. Cancer that begins in the lobes or lobules is called lobular carcinoma and is more often found in both breasts than are other types of breast cancer. Inflammatory breast cancer is an uncommon type of breast cancer in which the breast is warm, red, and swollen.
See the following PDQ summaries for more information about breast cancer:
A family history of breast cancer and other factors increase the risk of breast cancer.
Anything that increases your chance of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will get cancer; not having risk factors doesn't mean that you will not get cancer. Talk to your doctor if you think you may be at risk for breast cancer.
Risk factors for breast cancer include the following:
Older age is the main risk factor for most cancers. The chance of getting cancer increases as you get older.
NCI's Breast Cancer Risk Assessment Tool uses a woman's risk factors to estimate her risk for breast cancer during the next five years and up to age 90. This online tool is meant to be used by a health care provider. For more information on breast cancer risk, call 1-800-4-CANCER.
Breast cancer is sometimes caused by inherited gene mutations (changes).
The genes in cells carry the hereditary information that is received from a person's parents. Hereditary breast cancer makes up about 5% to 10% of all breast cancer. Some mutated genes related to breast cancer are more common in certain ethnic groups.
Women who have certain gene mutations, such as a BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation, have an increased risk of breast cancer. These women also have an increased risk of ovarian cancer, and may have an increased risk of other cancers. Men who have a mutated gene related to breast cancer also have an increased risk of breast cancer. For more information, see the PDQ summary on Male Breast Cancer Treatment.
There are tests that can detect (find) mutated genes. These genetic tests are sometimes done for members of families with a high risk of cancer. See the PDQ summary on Genetics of Breast and Gynecologic Cancers for more information.
The use of certain medicines and other factors decrease the risk of breast cancer.
Anything that decreases your chance of getting a disease is called a protective factor.
Protective factors for breast cancer include the following:
Signs of breast cancer include a lump or change in the breast.
These and other signs may be caused by breast cancer or by other conditions. Check with your doctor if you have any of the following:
Tests that examine the breasts are used to detect (find) and diagnose breast cancer.
Check with your doctor if you notice any changes in your breasts. The following tests and procedures may be used:
There are four types of biopsy used to check for breast cancer:
If cancer is found, tests are done to study the cancer cells.
Decisions about the best treatment are based on the results of these tests. The tests give information about:
Tests include the following:
Based on these tests, breast cancer is described as:
This information helps the doctor decide which treatments will work best for your cancer.
Certain factors affect prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options.
The prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options depend on the following:
After breast cancer has been diagnosed, tests are done to find out if cancer cells have spread within the breast or to other parts of the body.
The process used to find out whether the cancer has spread within the breast or to other parts of the body is called staging. The information gathered from the staging process determines the stage of the disease. It is important to know the stage in order to plan treatment.
The following tests and procedures may be used in the staging process:
There are three ways that cancer spreads in the body.
Cancer can spread through tissue, the lymph system, and the blood:
Cancer may spread from where it began to other parts of the body.
When cancer spreads to another part of the body, it is called metastasis. Cancer cells break away from where they began (the primary tumor) and travel through the lymph system or blood.
The metastatic tumor is the same type of cancer as the primary tumor. For example, if breast cancer spreads to the bone, the cancer cells in the bone are actually breast cancer cells. The disease is metastatic breast cancer, not bone cancer.
The following stages are used for breast cancer:
This section describes the stages of breast cancer. The breast cancer stage is based on the results of testing that is done on the tumor and lymph nodes removed during surgery and other tests.
Stage 0 (carcinoma in situ)
There are 3 types of breast carcinoma in situ:
Stage I breast cancer. In stage IA, the tumor is 2 centimeters or smaller and has not spread outside the breast. In stage IB, no tumor is found in the breast or the tumor is 2 centimeters or smaller. Small clusters of cancer cells (larger than 0.2 millimeter but not larger than 2 millimeters) are found in the lymph nodes.
In stage I, cancer has formed. Stage I is divided into stages IA and IB.
Stage II is divided into stages IIA and IIB.
Stage IIIA breast cancer. No tumor is found in the breast or the tumor may be any size and cancer is found in 4 to 9 axillary lymph nodes or lymph nodes near the breastbone (left panel); OR the tumor is larger than 5 centimeters and small clusters of cancer cells (larger than 0.2 millimeter but not larger than 2 millimeters) are found in the lymph nodes (middle panel); OR the tumor is larger than 5 centimeters and cancer is found in 1 to 3 axillary lymph nodes or lymph nodes near the breastbone (right panel).
In stage IIIA:
Stage IIIB breast cancer. The tumor may be any size and cancer has spread to the chest wall and/or to the skin of the breast and caused swelling or an ulcer. Cancer may have spread to up to 9 axillary lymph nodes or the lymph nodes near the breastbone. Cancer that has spread to the skin of the breast may be inflammatory breast cancer.
In stage IIIB, the tumor may be any size and cancer has spread to the chest wall and/or to the skin of the breast and caused swelling or an ulcer. Also, cancer may have spread to:
Cancer that has spread to the skin of the breast may also be inflammatory breast cancer. See the section on Inflammatory Breast Cancer for more information.
Stage IIIC breast cancer. No tumor is found in the breast or the tumor may be any size and may have spread to the chest wall and/or to the skin of the breast and caused swelling or an ulcer. Also, cancer has spread to 10 or more axillary lymph nodes (left panel); OR to lymph nodes above or below the collarbone (middle panel); OR to axillary lymph nodes and lymph nodes near the breastbone (right panel). Cancer that has spread to the skin of the breast may be inflammatory breast cancer.
In stage IIIC, no tumor is found in the breast or the tumor may be any size. Cancer may have spread to the skin of the breast and caused swelling or an ulcer and/or has spread to the chest wall. Also, cancer has spread to:
For treatment, stage IIIC breast cancer is divided into operable and inoperable stage IIIC.
Stage IV breast cancer. The cancer has spread to other parts of the body, most often the bones, lungs, liver, or brain.
In stage IV, cancer has spread to other organs of the body, most often the bones, lungs, liver, or brain.
In inflammatory breast cancer, cancer has spread to the skin of the breast and the breast looks red and swollen and feels warm. The redness and warmth occur because the cancer cells block the lymph vessels in the skin. The skin of the breast may also show the dimpled appearance called peau d'orange (like the skin of an orange). There may not be any lumps in the breast that can be felt. Inflammatory breast cancer may be stage IIIB, stage IIIC, or stage IV.
Inflammatory breast cancer of the left breast showing peau d'orange and inverted nipple.
Recurrent breast cancer is cancer that has recurred (come back) after it has been treated. The cancer may come back in the breast, in the chest wall, or in other parts of the body.
There are different types of treatment for patients with breast cancer.
Different types of treatment are available for patients with breast cancer. Some treatments are standard (the currently used treatment), and some are being tested in clinical trials. A treatment clinical trial is a research study meant to help improve current treatments or obtain information on new treatments for patients with cancer. When clinical trials show that a new treatment is better than the standard treatment, the new treatment may become the standard treatment. Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.
Five types of standard treatment are used:
Most patients with breast cancer have surgery to remove the cancer.
Sentinel lymph node biopsy is the removal of the sentinel lymph node during surgery. The sentinel lymph node is the first lymph node to receive lymphatic drainage from a tumor. It is the first lymph node where the cancer is likely to spread. A radioactive substance and/or blue dye is injected near the tumor. The substance or dye flows through the lymph ducts to the lymph nodes. The first lymph node to receive the substance or dye is removed. A pathologist views the tissue under a microscope to look for cancer cells. After the sentinel lymph node biopsy, the surgeon removes the tumor using breast-conserving surgery or mastectomy. If cancer cells are not found, it may not be necessary to remove more lymph nodes. If cancer cells are found, more lymph nodes will be removed through a separate incision. This is called a lymph node dissection.
Types of surgery include the following:
Chemotherapy may be given before surgery to remove the tumor. When given before surgery, chemotherapy will shrink the tumor and reduce the amount of tissue that needs to be removed during surgery. Treatment given before surgery is called preoperative therapy or neoadjuvant therapy.
Even if the doctor removes all the cancer that can be seen at the time of the surgery, some patients may be given radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or hormone therapy after surgery, to kill any cancer cells that are left. Treatment given after the surgery, to lower the risk that the cancer will come back, is called postoperative therapy or adjuvant therapy.
If a patient is going to have a mastectomy, breast reconstruction (surgery to rebuild a breast's shape after a mastectomy) may be considered. Breast reconstruction may be done at the time of the mastectomy or at some time after. The reconstructed breast may be made with the patient's own (nonbreast) tissue or by using implants filled with saline or silicone gel. Before the decision to get an implant is made, patients can call the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) Center for Devices and Radiologic Health at 1-888-INFO-FDA (1-888-463-6332) or visit the FDA website for more information on breast implants.
Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses high-energy x-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells or keep them from growing. There are two types of radiation therapy. External radiation therapy uses a machine outside the body to send radiation toward the cancer. Internal radiation therapy uses a radioactive substance sealed in needles, seeds, wires, or catheters that are placed directly into or near the cancer.
The way the radiation therapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated. External radiation therapy is used to treat breast cancer.
Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping them from dividing. When chemotherapy is taken by mouth or injected into a vein or muscle, the drugs enter the bloodstream and can reach cancer cells throughout the body (systemic chemotherapy). When chemotherapy is placed directly into the cerebrospinal fluid, an organ, or a body cavity such as the abdomen, the drugs mainly affect cancer cells in those areas (regional chemotherapy).
The way the chemotherapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated. Systemic chemotherapy is used in the treatment of breast cancer.
See Drugs Approved for Breast Cancer for more information.
Hormone therapy is a cancer treatment that removes hormones or blocks their action and stops cancer cells from growing. Hormones are substances made by glands in the body and circulated in the bloodstream. Some hormones can cause certain cancers to grow. If tests show that the cancer cells have places where hormones can attach (receptors), drugs, surgery, or radiation therapy is used to reduce the production of hormones or block them from working. The hormone estrogen, which makes some breast cancers grow, is made mainly by the ovaries. Treatment to stop the ovaries from making estrogen is called ovarian ablation.
Hormone therapy with tamoxifen is often given to patients with early localized breast cancer that can be removed by surgery and those with metastatic breast cancer (cancer that has spread to other parts of the body). Hormone therapy with tamoxifen or estrogens can act on cells all over the body and may increase the chance of developing endometrial cancer. Women taking tamoxifen should have a pelvic exam every year to look for any signs of cancer. Any vaginal bleeding, other than menstrual bleeding, should be reported to a doctor as soon as possible.
Hormone therapy with an aromatase inhibitor is given to some postmenopausal women who have hormone receptor–positive breast cancer. Aromatase inhibitors decrease the body's estrogen by blocking an enzyme called aromatase from turning androgen into estrogen. Anastrozole and letrozole are two types of aromatase inhibitors.
For the treatment of early localized breast cancer that can be removed by surgery, certain aromatase inhibitors may be used as adjuvant therapy instead of tamoxifen or after 2 to 3 years of tamoxifen use. For the treatment of metastatic breast cancer, aromatase inhibitors are being tested in clinical trials to compare them to hormone therapy with tamoxifen.
Targeted therapy is a type of treatment that uses drugs or other substances to identify and attack specific cancer cells without harming normal cells. Monoclonal antibodies, tyrosine kinase inhibitors, and cyclin-dependent kinase inhibitors are types of targeted therapies used in the treatment of breast cancer.
Monoclonal antibody therapy is a cancer treatment that uses antibodies made in the laboratory, from a single type of immune system cell. These antibodies can identify substances on cancer cells or normal substances that may help cancer cells grow. The antibodies attach to the substances and kill the cancer cells, block their growth, or keep them from spreading. Monoclonal antibodies are given by infusion. They may be used alone or to carry drugs, toxins, or radioactive material directly to cancer cells. Monoclonal antibodies may be used in combination with chemotherapy as adjuvant therapy.
Types of monoclonal antibody therapy include the following:
Tyrosine kinase inhibitors are targeted therapy drugs that block signals needed for tumors to grow. Tyrosine kinase inhibitors may be used with other anticancer drugs as adjuvant therapy. Tyrosine kinase inhibitors include the following:
Cyclin-dependent kinase inhibitors are targeted therapy drugs that block proteins called cyclin-dependent kinases, which cause the growth of cancer cells. Cyclin-dependent kinase inhibitors include the following:
PARP inhibitors are a type of targeted therapy that block DNA repair and may cause cancer cells to die. PARP inhibitor therapy is being studied for the treatment of patients with triple negative breast cancer or tumors with BRCA1 or BRCA2mutations.
Some treatments for breast cancer may cause side effects months or years after treatment has ended.
Some treatments for breast cancer may cause side effects that continue or appear months or years after treatment has ended. These are called late effects.
Late effects of radiation therapy are not common, but may include:
Late effects of chemotherapy depend on the drugs used, but may include:
Late effects of targeted therapy with trastuzumab may include:
New types of treatment are being tested in clinical trials.
This summary section describes treatments that are being studied in clinical trials. It may not mention every new treatment being studied. Information about clinical trials is available from the NCI website.
High-dose chemotherapy with stem cell transplant
High-dose chemotherapy with stem cell transplant is a way of giving high doses of chemotherapy and replacing blood -forming cells destroyed by the cancer treatment. Stem cells (immature blood cells) are removed from the blood or bone marrow of the patient or a donor and are frozen and stored. After the chemotherapy is completed, the stored stem cells are thawed and given back to the patient through an infusion. These reinfused stem cells grow into (and restore) the body's blood cells.
Studies have shown that high-dose chemotherapy followed by stem cell transplant does not work better than standard chemotherapy in the treatment of breast cancer. Doctors have decided that, for now, high-dose chemotherapy should be tested only in clinical trials. Before taking part in such a trial, women should talk with their doctors about the serious side effects, including death, that may be caused by high-dose chemotherapy.
Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial.
For some patients, taking part in a clinical trial may be the best treatment choice. Clinical trials are part of the cancer research process. Clinical trials are done to find out if new cancer treatments are safe and effective or better than the standard treatment.
Many of today's standard treatments for cancer are based on earlier clinical trials. Patients who take part in a clinical trial may receive the standard treatment or be among the first to receive a new treatment.
Patients who take part in clinical trials also help improve the way cancer will be treated in the future. Even when clinical trials do not lead to effective new treatments, they often answer important questions and help move research forward.
Patients can enter clinical trials before, during, or after starting their cancer treatment.
Some clinical trials only include patients who have not yet received treatment. Other trials test treatments for patients whose cancer has not gotten better. There are also clinical trials that test new ways to stop cancer from recurring (coming back) or reduce the side effects of cancer treatment.
Clinical trials are taking place in many parts of the country. See the Treatment Options section that follows for links to current treatment clinical trials. These have been retrieved from NCI's listing of clinical trials.
Follow-up tests may be needed.
Some of the tests that were done to diagnose the cancer or to find out the stage of the cancer may be repeated. Some tests will be repeated in order to see how well the treatment is working. Decisions about whether to continue, change, or stop treatment may be based on the results of these tests.
Some of the tests will continue to be done from time to time after treatment has ended. The results of these tests can show if your condition has changed or if the cancer has recurred (come back). These tests are sometimes called follow-up tests or check-ups.
Treatment of ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) may include the following:
Check the list of NCI-supported cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with ductal breast carcinoma in situ. For more specific results, refine the search by using other search features, such as the location of the trial, the type of treatment, or the name of the drug. Talk with your doctor about clinical trials that may be right for you. General information about clinical trials is available from the NCI website.
Early, Localized, or Operable Breast Cancer
This section refers to the treatment of Stage I, Stage II, and operable Stage IIIA breast cancer. Treatment of early, localized, or operable breast cancer may include the following:
Postoperative radiation therapy
For women who had breast-conserving surgery, radiation therapy is given to the whole breast to lessen the chance the cancer will come back.
For women who had a modified radical mastectomy, radiation therapy may be given to lessen the chance the cancer will come back if any of the following are true:
Postoperative systemic therapy
Postoperative systemic therapy is given depending on whether:
In premenopausal women with hormone receptor–positive tumors, no more treatment may be needed or postoperative therapy may include:
In postmenopausal women with hormone receptor–positive tumors, no more treatment may be needed or postoperative therapy may include:
In women with hormone receptor–negative tumors, no more treatment may be needed or postoperative therapy may include:
In women with HER2/neu negative tumors, postoperative therapy may include:
In women with small, HER2/neu positive tumors, and no cancer in the lymph nodes, no more treatment may be needed. If there is cancer in the lymph nodes, or the tumor is large, postoperative therapy may include:
In women with small, hormone receptor–negative and HER2/neu negative tumors (triple negative) and no cancer in the lymph nodes, no more treatment may be needed. If there is cancer in the lymph nodes or the tumor is large, postoperative therapy may include:
Preoperative systemic therapy
In postmenopausal women with hormone receptor–positive tumors, preoperative therapy may include:
In premenopausal women with hormone receptor–positive tumors, preoperative therapy may include:
In women with HER2/neu positive tumors, preoperative therapy may include:
In women with HER2/neu negative tumors or triple-negative tumors, preoperative therapy may include:
Check the list of NCI-supported cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with stage I breast cancer, stage II breast cancer, stage IIIA breast cancer and stage IIIC breast cancer. For more specific results, refine the search by using other search features, such as the location of the trial, the type of treatment, or the name of the drug. Talk with your doctor about clinical trials that may be right for you. General information about clinical trials is available from the NCI website.
Late, Metastatic, and Inoperable Breast Cancer
This section refers to the treatment of Stage IIIB, inoperable Stage IIIC, Stage IV, and metastatic breast cancer.
Stage IIIB and inoperable stage IIIC breast cancer
Treatment of stage IIIB and inoperable stage IIIC breast cancer may include the following:
Stage IV and metastatic breast cancer
Locally recurrent breast cancer
Treatment of recurrent breast cancer (cancer that has come back after treatment) in the breast or chest wall may include the following:
Treatment of stage IV or metastatic breast cancer may include the following:
Check the list of NCI-supported cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with stage IIIB breast cancer, stage IIIC breast cancer and stage IV breast cancer. For more specific results, refine the search by using other search features, such as the location of the trial, the type of treatment, or the name of the drug. Talk with your doctor about clinical trials that may be right for you. General information about clinical trials is available from the NCI website.
Inflammatory Breast Cancer
Treatment of inflammatory breast cancer may include the following:
Check the list of NCI-supported cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with inflammatory breast cancer. For more specific results, refine the search by using other search features, such as the location of the trial, the type of treatment, or the name of the drug. Talk with your doctor about clinical trials that may be right for you. General information about clinical trials is available from the NCI website.
Check the list of NCI-supported cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with recurrent breast cancer. For more specific results, refine the search by using other search features, such as the location of the trial, the type of treatment, or the name of the drug. Talk with your doctor about clinical trials that may be right for you. General information about clinical trials is available from the NCI website.
For more information from the National Cancer Institute about breast cancer, see the following:
For general cancer information and other resources from the National Cancer Institute, see the following:
The PDQ cancer information summaries are reviewed regularly and updated as new information becomes available. This section describes the latest changes made to this summary as of the date above.
Editorial changes were made to this summary.
Physician Data Query (PDQ) is the National Cancer Institute's (NCI's) comprehensive cancer information database. The PDQ database contains summaries of the latest published information on cancer prevention, detection, genetics, treatment, supportive care, and complementary and alternative medicine. Most summaries come in two versions. The health professional versions have detailed information written in technical language. The patient versions are written in easy-to-understand, nontechnical language. Both versions have cancer information that is accurate and up to date and most versions are also available in Spanish.
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This PDQ cancer information summary has current information about the treatment of breast cancer. It is meant to inform and help patients, families, and caregivers. It does not give formal guidelines or recommendations for making decisions about health care.
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Clinical Trial Information
A clinical trial is a study to answer a scientific question, such as whether one treatment is better than another. Trials are based on past studies and what has been learned in the laboratory. Each trial answers certain scientific questions in order to find new and better ways to help cancer patients. During treatment clinical trials, information is collected about the effects of a new treatment and how well it works. If a clinical trial shows that a new treatment is better than one currently being used, the new treatment may become "standard." Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.
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National Cancer Institute: PDQ® Breast Cancer Treatment. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Date last modified <MM/DD/YYYY>. Available at: http://www.cancer.gov/types/breast/patient/breast-treatment-pdq. Accessed <MM/DD/YYYY>.
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Last Revised: 2015-10-22
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