Breast cancer

Ivor Griffiths, Poet, Novelist & Short Story Writer

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Breast cancer
Classification & external resources
ICD-10 C50.
ICD-9 174-175
OMIM 114480
DiseasesDB 1598
MedlinePlus 000913
eMedicine med/2808 
MeSH D001943

Breast cancer is a cancer of the glandular breast tissue.

Worldwide, breast cancer is the fifth most common cause of cancer death (after lung cancer, stomach cancer, liver cancer, and colon cancer). In 2005, breast cancer caused 502,000 deaths (7% of cancer deaths; almost 1% of all deaths) worldwide.[1] Among women worldwide, breast cancer is the most common cancer.[1]

In the United States, breast cancer is the most prevalent cancer in women, and the second most common cause of cancer death in women (after lung cancer). In 2007, breast cancer is expected to cause 40,910 deaths (7% of cancer deaths; almost 2% of all deaths) in the U.S.[2][3] Women in the U.S. have 1 in 8 lifetime chance of developing invasive breast cancer and a 1 in 33 chance of breast cancer causing their death.[3]

The number of cases has significantly increased since the 1970s, a phenomenon partly blamed on modern lifestyles in the Western world.[4][5] Because the breast is composed of identical tissues in males and females, breast cancer also occurs in males, though it is less common.[6]

Time line of breast cancer suggesting probable heterogeneity. Primary breast cancers begin as single (or more) cells which have lost normal regulation of differentiation and proliferation but remain confined within the basement membrane of the duct or lobule. As these cells go through several doublings, at some point they invade through the basement membrane of the ductule or lobule and ultimately metastasize to distant organs.
Time line of breast cancer suggesting probable heterogeneity. Primary breast cancers begin as single (or more) cells which have lost normal regulation of differentiation and proliferation but remain confined within the basement membrane of the duct or lobule. As these cells go through several doublings, at some point they invade through the basement membrane of the ductule or lobule and ultimately metastasize to distant organs.[7]


  • 1 History
  • 2 Types
  • 3 Symptoms
  • 4 Epidemiologic risk factors and etiology
    • 4.1 Age
    • 4.2 Sex
    • 4.3 Heredity
    • 4.4 Diet
    • 4.5 Alcohol
    • 4.6 Obesity
    • 4.7 Hormones
    • 4.8 Environmental causes
      • 4.8.1 Tobacco
      • 4.8.2 Radiation
      • 4.8.3 Impact of environmental estrogenic mimics
      • 4.8.4 Dioxins
      • 4.8.5 Light levels
    • 4.9 Viral breast cancer pathogenesis research
    • 4.10 Factors with minimal or no impact on breast cancer risk
      • 4.10.1 Abortion
      • 4.10.2 Deodorants
      • 4.10.3 Fertility treatments
      • 4.10.4 Phytoestrogens and soy
  • 5 Prevention in high-risk individuals
    • 5.1 Prophylactic oophorectomy
    • 5.2 Managing side effects of prophylactic oophorectomy
      • 5.2.1 Non-hormonal treatments
      • 5.2.2 Hormonal treatments
    • 5.3 Prophylactic mastectomy
    • 5.4 Medications
      • 5.4.1 Selective estrogen receptor modulators (SERMs)
      • 5.4.2 Aromatase inhibitors
  • 6 Screening
    • 6.1 X-ray mammography
    • 6.2 Breast MRI
    • 6.3 Breast ultrasound
    • 6.4 Breast self-exam
  • 7 Diagnosis
  • 8 Staging
  • 9 Treatment personalization with gene expression profiling
  • 10 Treatment
    • 10.1 Surgery
    • 10.2 Radiation therapy
      • 10.2.1 Indications for radiation
      • 10.2.2 Types of radiotherapy
      • 10.2.3 Side effects of radiation therapy
    • 10.3 Systemic therapy
      • 10.3.1 Chemotherapy
      • 10.3.2 Hormonal treatment
      • 10.3.3 Targeted therapy
      • 10.3.4 Antiangiogenic therapy
      • 10.3.5 Preclinical
        • PTPB1
        • Flax seeds
      • 10.3.6 Traditional Chinese medicine
  • 11 Psychological aspects of breast cancer diagnosis and treatment
  • 12 Prognosis
  • 13 Breast cancer in males
  • 14 Breast cancer metastasis
  • 15 Breast cancer awareness
  • 16 See also
  • 17 References
  • 18 External links
    • 18.1 General
    • 18.2 Research and statistics
    • 18.3 Clinical
    • 18.4 Other


Breast cancer may be one of the oldest known forms of cancer tumors in humans. The oldest description of cancer (although the term cancer was not used) was discovered in Egypt and dates back to approximately 1600 BC. The Edwin Smith Papyrus describes 8 cases of tumors or ulcers of the breast that were treated by cauterization, with a tool called "the fire drill." The writing says about the disease, "There is no treatment."[8] For centuries, physicians described similar cases in their practises, with the same sad conclusion. It wasn't until doctors achieved greater understanding of the circulatory system in the 17th century that they could establish a link between breast cancer and the lymph nodes in the armpit. The French surgeon Jean Louis Petit (1674-1750) and later the Scottish surgeon Benjamin Bell (1749-1806) were the first to remove the lymph nodes, breast tissue, and underlying chest muscle. Their successful work was carried on by William Stewart Halsted who started performing mastectomies in 1882. He became known for his Halsted radical mastectomy, a surgical procedure that remained popular up to the 1970s.


These are the pathological and clinical categories of breast cancer. There can be overlap between these categories; for example, a ductal carcinoma can also be an inflammatory breast cancer.

  • Ductal carcinoma 65-90%
  • Lobular carcinoma 10%
  • Inflammatory breast cancer
  • Medullary carcinoma of the breast 5%
  • Colloid carcinoma 2%
  • Papillary carcinoma 1%
  • Metaplastic carcinoma
  • Triple Negative Breast Cancer


Early breast cancer can in some cases present as breast pain (mastodynia) or a painful lump. Since the advent of breast mammography, breast cancer is most frequently discovered as an asymptomatic nodule on a mammogram, before any symptoms are present. A lump under the arm or above the collarbone that does not go away may be present. When breast cancer associates with skin inflammation, this is known as inflammatory breast cancer. In inflammatory breast cancer, the breast tumor itself is causing an inflammatory reaction of the skin, and this can cause pain, swelling, warmth, and redness throughout the breast.

Changes in the appearance or shape of the breast can raise suspicions of breast cancer.

Another reported symptom complex of breast cancer is Paget's disease of the breast. This syndrome presents as eczematoid skin changes at the nipple, and is a late manifestation of an underlying breast cancer.

Most breast symptoms do not turn out to represent underlying breast cancer. Benign breast diseases such as fibrocystic mastopathy, mastitis, functional mastodynia, and fibroadenoma of the breast are more common causes of breast symptoms. The appearance of a new breast symptom should be taken seriously by both patients and their doctors, because of the possibility of an underlying breast cancer at almost any age.

Occasionally, breast cancer presents as metastatic disease, that is, cancer that has spread beyond the original organ. Metastatic breast cancer will cause symptoms that depend on the location of metastasis. More common sites of metastasis include bone, liver, lung, and brain. Unexplained weight loss can occasionally herald an occult breast cancer, as can symptoms of fevers or chills. Bone or joint pains can sometimes be manifestations of metastatic breast cancer, as can jaundice or neurological symptoms. Pleural effusions are not uncommon with metastatic breast cancer. Obviously, these symptoms are "non-specific," meaning they can also be manifestations of many other illnesses.

Epidemiologic risk factors and etiology

Epidemiological risk factors for a disease can provide important clues as to the etiology of a disease. The first work on breast cancer epidemiology was done by Janet Lane-Claypon, who published a comparative study in 1926 of 500 breast cancer cases and 500 control patients of the same background and lifestyle for the British Ministry of Health.[citation needed]

Today, breast cancer, like other forms of cancer, is considered to be the final outcome of multiple environmental and hereditary factors.

  1. Lesions to DNA such as genetic mutations. Exposure to estrogen has been experimentally linked to the mutations that cause breast cancer.[9] Beyond the contribution of estrogen, research has implicated viral oncogenesis and the contribution of ionizing radiation.
  2. Failure of immune surveillance, which usually removes malignancies at early phases of their natural history.
  3. Abnormal growth factor signaling in the interaction between stromal cells and epithelial cells, for example in the angiogenesis necessary to promote new blood vessel growth near new cancers.
  4. Inherited defects in DNA repair genes, such as BRCA1, BRCA2 and p53.

Although many epidemiological risk factors have been identified, the cause of any individual breast cancer is often unknowable. In other words, epidemiological research informs the patterns of breast cancer incidence across certain populations, but not in a given individual. Approximately 5% of new breast cancers are attributable to hereditary syndromes, while no etiology is known for the other 95% of cases.[10]


The risk of getting breast cancer increases with age. A woman who lives to age 90 has a lifetime risk of about 14.3%, or one in seven.[11] The probability of breast cancer rises with age, but breast cancer tends to be more aggressive when it occurs in younger people. One type of breast cancer that is especially aggressive and that occurs disproportionately in younger people is inflammatory breast cancer. It is initially staged as Stage IIIb or Stage IV. It also is unique because it often does not present with a lump, so it is often undetected by mammography or ultrasound. It presents with the signs and symptoms of a breast infection like mastitis, and the treatment is usually a combination of surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy.


Men have a lower risk of developing breast cancer (approximately 1.08 per 100,000 men per year), but this risk appears to be rising.[12]


In 5% of breast cancer cases, there is a strong inherited familial risk.[13] Two autosomal dominant genes, BRCA1 and BRCA2, account for most of the cases of familial breast cancer. Family members who harbor mutations in these genes have a 60% to 80% risk of developing breast cancer in their lifetimes.[13] Other associated malignancies include ovarian cancer and pancreatic cancer. If a mother or a sister was diagnosed breast cancer, the risk of a hereditary ‘’’BRCA1’’’ or ‘’’BRCA2’’’ gene mutation is about 2-fold higher than those women without a familial history. In addition to the BRCA genes associated with breast cancer, the presence of NBR2, near breast cancer gene 1, has been discovered, and research into its contribution to breast cancer pathogenesis is ongoing.[14] Commercial testing for ‘’’BRCA1’’’ and ‘’’BRCA2’’’ gene mutations has been available since at least 2004. Genetic testing for BRCA gene mutations is conducted exclusively by Myriad Genetics, located in Salt Lake City.


Dietary influences have been proposed and examined, and recent research suggests that low-fat diets may significantly decrease the risk of breast cancer as well as the recurrence of breast cancer.[15] Another study showed no contribution of dietary fat intake on the incidence of breast cancer in over 300,000 women.[16] A randomized controlled study of the consequences of a low-fat diet, the Women's Health Initiative, failed to show a statistically significant reduction in breast cancer incidence in the group assigned to a low-fat diet, although the authors did find evidence of a benefit in the subgoup of women who followed the low-fat diet in a strict manner.[17] Another randomized trial, the Nurses' Health Study II, found increased breast cancer incidence in premenopausal women only, with higher intake of animal fat, but not vegetable fat. Taken as a whole, these results point to a possible association between dietary fat intake and breast cancer incidence, though these interactions are hard to measure in large groups of women.

A significant environmental effect is likely responsible for the different rates of breast cancer incidence between countries with different dietary customs. Researchers have long measured that breast cancer rates in an immigrant population soon come to resemble the rates of the host country after a few generations. The reason for this is speculated to be immigrant uptake of the host country diet. The prototypical example of this phenomenon is the changing rate of breast cancer after the arrival of Japanese immigrants to America.[citation needed]


Alcohol appears to increase the risk of breast cancer, though meaningful increases are limited to higher alcohol intake levels. Breast cancer constitutes about 7.3% of all cancers.[18] Among women, breast cancer comprises 60% of alcohol-attributable cancers.[19] The UK's Review of Alcohol: Association with Breast Cancer concludes that "studies confirm previous observations that there appears to be an association between alcohol intake and increased risk of breast cancer in women. On balance, there was a weak association between the amount of alcohol consumed and the relative risk."[20]

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) concludes that "Chronic alcohol consumption has been associated with a small (averaging 10 percent) increase in a woman's risk of breast cancer."[21][22][23][24] According to these studies, the risk appears to increase as the quantity and duration of alcohol consumption increases. Other studies, however, have found no evidence of such a link.[25][26][27]

The Committee on Carcinogenicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products Non-Technical Summary concludes, "the new research estimates that a woman drinking an average of two units of alcohol per day has a lifetime risk of developing breast cancer 8% higher than a woman who drinks an average of one unit of alcohol per day.[28] The risk of breast cancer further increases with each additional drink consumed per day. The research also concludes that approximately 6% (between 3.2% and 8.8%) of breast cancers reported in the UK each year could be prevented if drinking was reduced to a very low level (i.e. less than 1 unit/week)." A review article from JAMA also found that breast cancer incidence seems to increase with increasing alcohol consumption.[29] It has been reported that "two drinks daily increase the risk of getting breast cancer by about 25 percent" (NCI), but the evidence is inconsistent. The Framingham study has carefully tracked individuals since the 1940s. Data from that research found that drinking alcohol moderately did not increase breast cancer risk (Wellness Facts). Similarly, research by the Danish National Institute for Public Health found that moderate drinking had virtually no effect on breast cancer risk.[30]

One study suggests that women who frequently drink red wine may have an increased risk of developing breast cancer.[31]

"Folate intake counteracts breast cancer risk associated with alcohol consumption"[32] and "women who drink alcohol and have a high folate intake are not at increased risk of cancer."[33] Those who have a high (200 micrograms or more per day) level of folate (folic acid or Vitamin B9) in their diet are not at increased risk of breast cancer compared to those who abstain from alcohol.[34] Foods rich in folate include citrus fruits, citrus juices, dark green leafy vegetables (such as spinach), dried beans, and peas. Vitamin B9 can also be taken in a multivitamin pill.


Gaining weight after menopause can increase a woman's risk. A recent study found that putting on 9.9kg (22lbs) after menopause increased the risk of developing breast cancer by 18%.[35]


Persistently increased blood levels of estrogen are associated with an increased risk of breast cancer, as are increased levels of the androgens androstenedione and testosterone (which can be directly converted by aromatase to the estrogens estrone and estradiol, respectively). Increased blood levels of progesterone are associated with a decreased risk of breast cancer in premenopausal women.[36] A number of circumstances which increase exposure to endogenous estrogens including not having children, delaying first childbirth, not breastfeeding, early menarche (the first menstrual period) and late menopause are suspected of increasing lifetime risk for developing breast cancer.[37]

Hormonal contraceptives may produce a slight increase in the risk of breast cancer diagnosis among current and recent users, but this appears to be a short-term effect. In 1996 the largest collaborative reanalysis of individual data on over 150,000 women in 54 studies of breast cancer found a relative risk (RR) of 1.24 of breast cancer diagnosis among current combined oral contraceptive pill users; 10 or more years after stopping, no difference was seen. Further, the cancers diagnosed in women who had ever used hormonal contraceptives were less advanced than those in nonusers, raising the possibility that the small excess among users was due to increased detection.[38][39] The relative risk of breast cancer diagnosis associated with current and recent use of hormonal contraceptives did not appear to vary with family history of breast cancer.[40]

Data exist from both observational and randomized clinical trials regarding the association between postmenopausal hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and breast cancer. The largest meta-analysis (1997) of data from 51 observational studies, indicated a relative risk of breast cancer of 1.35 for women who had used HRT for 5 or more years after menopause. The estrogen-plus-progestin arm of the Women's Health Initiative (WHI), a randomized controlled trial, which randomized more than 16,000 postmenopausal women to receive combined hormone therapy or placebo, was halted early (2002) because health risks exceeded benefits. One of the adverse outcomes prompting closure was a significant increase in both total and invasive breast cancers (RR = 1.24) in women randomized to receive estrogen and progestin for an average of 5 years. HRT-related breast cancers had adverse prognostic characteristics (more advanced stages and larger tumors) compared with cancers occurring in the placebo group, and HRT was also associated with a substantial increase in abnormal mammograms. Short-term use of hormones for treatment of menopausal symptoms appears to confer little or no breast cancer risk.[40]

Environmental causes


Most studies have not found an increased risk of breast cancer from active tobacco smoking, although a number of studies suggest an increased risk of breast cancer in both active smokers and those exposed to secondhand smoke compared to women who reported no exposure to secondhand smoke.[41]


Women who have received high-dose ionizing radiation to the chest (for example, as treatments for other cancers) have a relative risk of breast cancer between 2.1 to 4.0.[41]

Impact of environmental estrogenic mimics

Although environmental exposures are not generally cited as risk factors for the disease (except for diet, pharmaceuticals and radiation), a substantial and growing body of evidence indicates that exposures to certain toxic chemicals and hormone-mimicking compounds including chemicals used in pesticides, cosmetics and cleaning products contribute to the development of breast cancer. A recent Canadian study concluded that female farm workers are three times more likely to have breast cancer.[42] The increasing prevalence of these substances in the environment may explain the increasing incidence of breast cancer, though direct evidence is sparse.


Although not well-quantified, there has long been a concern about risk associated with environmental estrogenic compounds, such as dioxins.[citation needed]

Light levels

Researchers at the National Cancer Institute and National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences have concluded a study that suggests that artificial light during the night can be a factor for breast cancer.[43]

Viral breast cancer pathogenesis research

Humans are not the only mammals prone to breast cancer. Some strains of mice, namely the house mouse (Mus domesticus) are prone to breast cancer which is caused by infection with the mouse mammary tumour virus (MMTV or "Bittner virus" for its discoverer Hans Bittner), by random insertional mutagenesis. This finding is taken to mean that a viral etiology of human breast cancer is at least possible, though there is no definitive evidence to support the claim that MMTV causes human breast cancer. For example, there may be critical differences between cancer pathogenesis in mice and people. The understanding of the role of MMTV or other viruses in human breast cancer is preliminary as of May 2007.

Factors with minimal or no impact on breast cancer risk


Main article: Abortion-breast cancer hypothesis

Studies in rats[44] led to speculation that abortion may increase the risk of breast cancer because of hormones initiating breast tissue growth in early pregnancy. Some early interview[45] and record[46] based case-control studies indicated a possible correlation, but more recent record based studies[47][48][49] and a large meta-analysis[50] study do not support this association. The subject was examined a National Cancer Institute (NCI) workshop in 2003, in response to the Bush Administration's alteration of the NCI's website to emphasize studies indicating a potential link.[51] The NCI expert panel concluded, with the strongest level of evidence, that induced abortion is not associated with an increased breast cancer risk.[52]


Much has been made of the possible contribution of aluminum-containing underarm antiperspirants to the incidence of breast cancer, since the most common location of a breast cancer is the upper outer quadrant of the breast. Aluminum salts, such as those used in anti-perspirants, have recently been classified as metalloestrogens. In research published in the Journal of Applied Toxicology, Dr. Philippa D. Darbre of the University of Reading has shown that aluminum salts increase estrogen-related gene expression in human breast cancer cells grown in the laboratory.[53][54][55] Fortunately, this in-vitro association between aluminum salts and estrogen activity does not translate into an increased risk of breast cancer in humans. The lack of association between underarm deodorants and breast cancer has been the subject of a number of research articles.[56][57]

Fertility treatments

There is no persuasive connection between fertility medications and breast cancer.[58]

Phytoestrogens and soy

Phytoestrogens such as found in soybeans have been extensively studied in animal and human in-vitro and epidemiological studies. The literature support the following conclusions:

  1. Plant estrogen intake, such as from soy products, in early adolescence may protect against breast cancer later in life.[59]
  2. Plant estrogen intake later in life is not likely to influence breast cancer incidence either positively or negatively.[60]

It seems reasonable to conclude that soybean-based phytoestrogens are not a major contributor to the incidence of breast cancer.

Prevention in high-risk individuals

Prophylactic oophorectomy

Prophylactic oophorectomy (removal of ovaries), in high-risk individuals, when child-bearing is complete, reduces the risk of developing breast cancer by 60%, as well as reducing the risk of developing ovarian cancer by 96%.[61]

Managing side effects of prophylactic oophorectomy

Non-hormonal treatments

The side effects of Oophorectomy may be alleviated by medicines other than hormonal replacement. Non-hormonal biphosphonates (such as Fosamax and Actonel) increase bone strength and are available as once-a-week pills. Low-dose Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (e.g. Paxil, Prozac) alleviate vasomotor menopausal symptoms, i.e. "hot flashes".[62]

Hormonal treatments

Short-term hormone replacement with estrogen, in high-risk BRCA mutation carriers, was not shown to increase the risk of breast cancer in women who are post-oophorectomy. The results were published in JCO in 2004, and the conclusions based on a computerized simulation using models of risk and benefit, a lower level of data than a randomized trial per se. PMID 14981106. This result can probably be generalized to other women at high risk, in whom short term (i.e., one or two year) treatment with estrogen for hot flashes, may be acceptable.

Prophylactic mastectomy

Bilateral prophylactic mastectomies have been shown to prevent breast cancer in high-risk individuals, such as patients with BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutations.


Hormonal therapy has been used for chemoprevention in individuals at high risk for breast cancer. In 2002, a clinical practice guideline by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommended "clinicians discuss chemoprevention with women at high risk for breast cancer and at low risk for adverse effects of chemoprevention" with a grade B recommendation.[63][64]

Selective estrogen receptor modulators (SERMs)

The guidelines were based on studies of SERMs from the MORE, BCPT P-1, and Italian trials. In the MORE trial, the relative risk reduction for raloxifene was 76%.[65] The P-1 preventative study demonstrated that tamoxifen can prevent breast cancer in high-risk individuals. The relative risk reduction was up to 50% of new breast cancers, though the cancers prevented were more likely estrogen-receptor positive (this is analogous to the effect of finasteride on the prevention of prostate cancer, in which only low-grade prostate cancers were prevented).[66][67] The Italian trial showed benefit from tamoxifen.[68]

Additional randomized controlled trials have been published since the guidelines. The IBIS trial found benefit from tamoxifen. [69]In 2006, the NSABP STAR trial demonstrated that raloxifene had equal efficacy in preventing breast cancer compared with tamoxifen, but that there were fewer side effects with raloxifene.[70] The RUTH Trial concluded that "benefits of raloxifene in reducing the risks of invasive breast cancer and vertebral fracture should be weighed against the increased risks of venous thromboembolism and fatal stroke".[71]

Raloxifene is only FDA-approved for osteoporosis as of May 2007.

Aromatase inhibitors

Aromatase inhibitors may prove to prevent breast cancer.


X-ray mammography

Due to the high incidence of breast cancer among older women, screening is now recommended in many countries. Recommended screening methods include breast self-examination and mammography. Mammography has been estimated to reduce breast cancer-related mortality by 20-30%.[72] Routine (annual) mammography of women older than age 40 or 50 is recommended by numerous organizations as a screening method to diagnose early breast cancer and has demonstrated a protective effect in multiple clinical trials.[73] The evidence in favor of mammographic screening comes from eight randomized clinical trials from the 1960s through 1980s. Many of these trials have been criticised for methodological errors, and the results were summarized in a review article published in 1993.[74]

Improvements in mortality due to screening are hard to measure; similar difficulty exists in measuring the impact of Pap smear testing on cervical cancer, though worldwide, the impact of that test is likely enormous. Nationwide mortality due to cancer before and after the institution of a screening test is a surrogate indicator about the effectiveness of screening, and results of mammography are favorable.

Normal (left) versus cancerous (right) mammography image.
Normal (left) versus cancerous (right) mammography image.

The U.S. National Cancer Institute recommends screening mammography with a baseline mammogram at age 35, mammograms every two years beginning at age 40, and then annual mammograms beginning at age 50. In the UK, women are invited for screening once every three years beginning at age 50. Women with one or more first-degree relatives (mother, sister, daughter) with premenopausal breast cancer should begin screening at an earlier age. It is usually suggested to start screening at an age that is 10 years less than the age at which the relative was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Part of the difficulty in interpreting mammograms in younger women stems from the problem of breast density. Radiographically, a dense breast has a preponderance of glandular tissue, and younger age or estrogen hormone replacement therapy contribute to mammographic breast density. After menopause, the breast glandular tissue gradually is replaced by fatty tissue, making mammographic interpretation much more accurate. Some authors speculate that part of the contribution of estrogen hormone replacement therapy to breast cancer mortality arises from the issue of increased mammographic breast density. Breast density is an independent adverse prognostic factor on breast cancer prognosis.

Several scientific groups however have expressed concern about the public's perceptions of the benefits of breast screening.[75] In 2001, a controversial review published in The Lancet claimed that there is no reliable evidence that screening for breast cancer reduces mortality.[76] The results of this study were widely reported in the popular press.[77]

False positives are a major problem of mammographic breast cancer screening. Data reported in the UK Million Woman Study indicates that if 134 mammograms are performed, 20 women will be called back for suspicious findings, and four biopsies will be necessary, to diagnose one cancer. Recall rates are higher in the U.S. than in the UK.[78] The contribution of mammography to the early diagnosis of cancer cannot be overstated, but it comes at a huge financial and psychological cost to the women found to have a nodule.

In general, digital mammography and computer-aided mammography have increased the sensitivity of mammograms, but at the cost of more numerous false positive results.

Mammography is still the modality of choice for screening of early breast cancer, since it is relatively fast, reasonably accurate, and widely available in developed countries. Breast cancers detected by mammography are usually much smaller (earlier stage) than those detected by patients or doctors as a breast lump.

Breast MRI

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) has been shown to detect cancers that are not visible on mammograms, but it has several disadvantages. For example, although it is 27-36% more sensitive, it is less specific than mammography.[79] As a result, MRI studies will have more false positives (up to 5%), which may have undesirable financial and psychological costs. It is also a relatively expensive procedure, and one which requires the intravenous injection of a chemical agent to be effective. Proposed Indications for using MRI for screening include:[80]

  • Strong family history of breast cancer
  • Patients with BRCA-1 or BRCA-2 oncogene mutations
  • Evaluation of women with breast implants
  • History of previous lumpectomy or breast biopsy surgeries
  • Axillary metastasis with an unknown primary tumor
  • Very dense or scarred breast tissue

Breast ultrasound

Ultrasound alone is not usually employed as a screening tool but it is a useful additional tool for the characterization of palpable tumours and directing image-guided biopsies. U-Systems is a US-based company that is selling a breast-cancer detection system using ultrasound that is fully-automated. Using an ultrasound allows a look at dense breast tissue which is not possible with digital mammmography. It is closely correlated with the digital mammography. The other significant advantage over digital mammography is that it is a pain-free procedure.

Breast self-exam

Breast self-exam was widely discussed in the 1990s as a useful modality for detecting breast cancer at an earlier stage of presentation. A large clinical trial in China reduced enthusiasm for breast self-exam. In the trial, reported in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute first in 1997 and updated in 2002, 132,979 female Chinese factory workers were taught by nurses at their factories to perform monthly breast self-exam, while 133,085 other workers were not taught self-exam. The women taught self-exam tended to detect more breast nodules, but their breast cancer mortality rate was no different from that of women in the control group. In other words, women taught breast self-exam were mostly likely to detect benign breast disease, but were just as likely to die of breast cancer.[81] An editorial in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute reported in 2002, "Routinely Teaching Breast Self-Examination is Dead. What Does This Mean?"[82]


The diagnosis of breast cancer is established by the pathological (microscopic)examination of surgically removed breast tissue. A number of procedures can obtain tissue or cells prior to definitive treatment for histological or cytological examination. Such procedures include fine-needle aspiration, nipple aspirates, ductal lavage, core needle biopsy, and local surgical excisional biopsy. These diagnostic steps, when coupled with radiographic imaging, are usually accurate in diagnosing a breast lesion as cancer. Occasionally, pre-surgical procedures such as fine needle aspirate may not yield enough tissue to make a diagnosis, or may miss the cancer entirely. Imaging tests are sometimes used to detect metastasis and include chest x-ray, bone scan, CT, MRI, and PET scanning. While imaging studies are useful in determining the presence of metastatic disease, they are not in and of themselves diagnostic of cancer. Only microscopic evaluation of a biopsy specimen can yield a cancer diagnosis. Ca 15.3 (carbohydrate antigen 15.3, epithelial mucin) is a tumor marker determined in blood which can be used to follow disease activity over time after definitive treatment. Blood tumor marker testing is not routinely performed for the screening of breast cancer, and has poor performance characteristics for this purpose.


Breast cancer is staged according to the TNM system, updated in the AJCC Staging Manual, now on its sixth edition. Prognosis is closely linked to results of staging, and staging is also used to allocate patients to treatments both in clinical trials and clinical practice.

Summary of stages:

  • Stage 0 - Carcinoma in situ
  • Stage I - Tumor (T) does not exceed 2 cm, no axillary lymph nodes (N) involved.
  • Stage IIA – T 2-5 cm, N negative, or T <2 cm and N positive.
  • Stage IIB – T > 5 cm, N negative, or T 2-5 cm and N positive (< 4 axillary nodes).
  • Stage IIIA – T > 5 cm, N positive, or T 2-5 cm with 4 or more axillary nodes
  • Stage IIIB – T has penetrated chest wall or skin, and may have spread to < 10 axillary N
  • Stage IIIC – T has > 10 axillary N, 1 or more supraclavicular or infraclavicular N, or internal mammary N.
  • Stage IV – Distant metastasis (M)

Breast lesions are examined for certain markers, notably sex steroid hormone receptors. About two thirds of postmenopausal breast cancers are estrogen receptor positive (ER+) and progesterone receptor positive (PR+).[83] Receptor status modifies the treatment as, for instance, only ER-positive tumors, not ER-negative tumors, are sensitive to hormonal therapy.

The breast cancer is also usually tested for the presence of human epidermal growth factor receptor 2, a protein also known as HER2, neu or erbB2. HER2 is a cell-surface protein involved in cell development. In normal cells, HER2 controls aspects of cell growth and division. When activated in cancer cells, HER2 accelerates tumor formation. About 20-30% of breast cancers overexpress HER2. Those patients may be candidates for the drug Herceptin, both in the postsurgical setting (so-called "adjuvant" therapy), and in the metastatic setting.[84]

Treatment personalization with gene expression profiling

Recently, the acceleration of gene expression profiling research has made available additional markers to predict disease recurrence. Beyond conventional TNM staging, doctors can now order a gene expression profile on tumors to predict whether a breast cancer patient will have a high chance of developing breast cancer again. There are currently 2 commercial tests on the market, MammaPrint and Oncotype DX. Oncotype DX is not used in every clinical setting; for example, in a patient with positive lymph nodes who is a candidate for chemotherapy, the test would not change therapy decisions. The most useful setting for Oncotype DX testing is where there are negative lymph nodes, and the benefit of chemotherapy is felt to be small. In up to 10% of patients, there will be disease recurrences, but treating every patient with chemotherapy is overkill. In this setting, a high-risk score on the Oncotype DX can help doctors decide whether to recommend chemotherapy.


The mainstay of breast cancer treatment is surgery when the tumor is localized, with possible adjuvant hormonal therapy (with tamoxifen or an aromatase inhibitor), chemotherapy, and/or radiotherapy. At present, the treatment recommendations after surgery (adjuvant therapy) follow a pattern. This pattern is subject to change as every two years a worldwide conference takes place in St. Gallen, Switzerland to discuss the actual results of worldwide multi-center studies. Depending on clinical criteria (age, type of cancer, size, metastasis) patients are roughly divided to high risk and low risk cases which follow different rules for therapy. Treatment possibilities include Radiation Therapy, Chemotherapy, Hormone Therapy, and Immune Therapy.

An online resource for helping to quantify the relative risks and benefits of chemotherapy and hormonal therapy is Adjuvant! Online (see below).

In planning treatment, doctors can also use PCR tests like Oncotype DX or microarray tests like MammaPrint that predict breast cancer recurrence risk based on gene expression. In February 2007, the MammaPrint test became the first breast cancer predictor to win formal approval from the Food and Drug Administration. This is a new gene test to help predict whether women with early stage breast cancer will relapse in five or 10 years, this could help influence how aggressively they fight the initial tumor.[85]


Depending on the staging and type of the tumor, just a lumpectomy (removal of the lump only) may be all that is necessary or removal of larger amounts of breast tissue may be necessary. Surgical removal of the entire breast is called mastectomy.

While there has been an increasing utilization of lumpectomy techniques for breast-conservation cancer surgery, mastectomy may be the preferred treatment in certain instances:

  • Two or more tumors exist in different areas of the breast (a "multifocal" cancer).
  • The breast has previously received radiation (XRT) treatment.
  • The tumor is large relative to the size of the breast.
  • The patient has had scleroderma or another disease of the connective tissue, which can complicate XRT treatment.
  • The patient lives in an area where XRT is inaccessible.
  • The patient is apprehensive about their risk of local recurrence after lumpectomy.

Standard practice requires the surgeon to establish that the tissue removed in the operation has margins clear of cancer, indicating that the cancer has been completely excised. If the tissue removed does not have clear margins, then further operations to remove more tissue may be necessary. This may sometimes require removal of part of the pectoralis major muscle which is the main muscle of the anterior chest wall.

During the operation, the lymph nodes in the axilla are also considered for removal. In the past, large axillary operations took out ten to forty nodes to establish whether cancer had spread. This had the unfortunate side effect of frequently causing lymphedema of the arm on the same side, as the removal of this many lymph nodes affected lymphatic drainage. More recently, the technique of sentinel lymph node (SLN) dissection has become popular, as it requires the removal of far fewer lymph nodes, resulting in fewer side effects. The sentinel lymph node is the first node that drains the tumor, and subsequent SLN mapping can save 65-70% of patients with breast cancer from having a complete lymph node dissection for what could turn out to be a negative nodal basin. Advances in Sentinel Lymph Node mapping over the past decade have increased the accuracy of detecting Sentinel Lymph Node from 80% using blue dye alone to between 92% and 98% using combined modalities.[86] SLN biopsy is indicated for patients with T1 and T2 lesions (<5cm) and carries a number of recommendations for use on patient subgroups.[86]

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy consists of the use of high powered X-rays or gamma rays (XRT) that precisely target the area that is being treated. These X-rays or gamma rays are very effective in destroying the cancer cells that might recur where the tumor was removed. These X-rays are delivered by a machine called a linear Accelerator or LINAC. Alternatively, the use of implanted radioactive catheters (brachytherapy), similar to those used in prostate cancer treatment, is being evaluated. The use of radiation therapy for breast cancer is usually given after surgery has been performed and is an essential component of breast conserving therapy. The purpose of radiation is to reduce the chance that the cancer will recur.

Radiation therapy works for breast cancer by eliminating the microscopic cancer cells that may remain near the area where the tumor was removed during surgery. Since by the nature of radiation and its effects on normal cells and cancer cells alike the dose that is given is to ensure that the cancer cells are eliminated. However, the dose cannot be given in one sitting. Radiation causes some damage to the normal tissue around where the tumor was but normal healthy tissue can repair itself. The treatments are given typically over a period of five to seven weeks, performed five days a week. Each treatment session takes about fifteen minutes per day. Breaking the treatments up over this extended period of time gives the healthy normal tissue a chance to repair itself. Cancer cells do not repair themselves as well as normal cells, which explains the efficacy of radiation therapy.

Although radiation therapy can reduce the chance that breast cancer will recur in the breast, it is much less effective in prolonging patient survival. The National Cancer Institute reviews this information.[87] in a paragraph that begins:“Breast-conserving surgery alone without radiation therapy .” The NCI includes six studies; none of them found a survival benefit for radiation therapy. Abstracts from all six studies are available for review. Patients who are unable to have radiation therapy after lumpectomy should consult with a surgeon who understands this research and who believes that lumpectomy (or partial mastectomy) alone is a reasonable treatment option.

Indications for radiation

Indications for radiation treatment are constantly evolving. Patients treated in Europe have been more likely in the past to be recommended adjuvant radiation after breast cancer surgery. Radiation therapy is usually recommended for all patients who had (lumpectomy, quadrant-resection). Radiation therapy is usually not indicated in patients with advanced (stage IV disease) except for palliation of symptoms like bone pain.

In general recommendations would include:

  • As part of breast conserving therapy of breast cancer when the whole breast is not removed (lumpectomy or wide local excision)
  • After mastectomy: Patients with higher chances of cancer recurring such as : large primary tumor and involvement of 4 or more lymph nodes.

Other factors which may influence adding adjuvant radiation therapy:

  • Tumor close to or involving the margins on pathology specimen
  • Multiple areas of tumor (multicentric disease)
  • Microscopic invasion of lymphatic or vascular tissues
  • Microcopic invasion of the skin, nipple/areola, or underlying pectoralis major muscle
  • Patients with <4 LN involved, but extension out of the substance of a LN
  • Inadequate numbers of axillary LN sampled

Types of radiotherapy

Radiotherapy can be delivered in many ways. Most commonly this is done using radiation from linear accelerators. Since this is delivered from outside, one needs to restrict the amount of dose that can be given at one time so that normal tissues are not harmed. So the course usually lasts for several days, typically every day for 5 to 6 weeks.

New technology has allowed more precise delivery of radiotherapy in a portable fashion - for example in the operating theatre. Targeted intraoperative radiotherapy (TARGIT).[88] is a method of delivering therapeutic radiation from within the breast using a portable x-ray generator called Intrabeam. It is undergoing clinical trials in several countries at present to test whether it can replace the whole course of radiotherapy in selected patients.[89] It may also be able provide a much better boost dose to the tumour bed and appears to provide superior control.[90] This will be tested in a Targit-B trial.[91]

Side effects of radiation therapy

The side effects of radiation have decreased considerably over the past decades. Aside from general fatigue caused by the healthy tissue repairing itself, there will probably be no side effects at all. Some patients develop a suntan-like change in skin color in the exact area being treated. As with a suntan, this darkening of the skin will fade with time. Other side effects experienced with radiation include the fact that radiation therapy can and often does cause permanent changes in the color and texture of skin, in addition to:

  • reddening of the skin
  • muscle stiffness
  • mild swelling
  • tenderness in the area
  • long-term shrinking of the irradiated breast

Along with improved cosmetic outcome of treatment with radiation, there have been improvements in the techniques that deliver radiation to the breast. One such new technology is using IMRT (intensity modulated radiation therapy), in which the radiation oncologist can change the shape and intensity of the radiation beam at different points across and inside the breast. This allows for a more focused beam of radiation directed at the tumor cells and leaves most of the healthy tissue unaffected by the radiation.

Another new procedure involves a type of brachytherapy, where a radioactive source is temporarily placed inside the breast in direct contact with the tumor bed (area where tumor was removed). This technique is called a Mammosite and is currently undergoing clinic trials.

The use of adjuvant radiation has significant potential effects if the patient has to later undergo breast reconstruction surgery. Fibrosis of chest wall skin from radiation negatively affects skin elasticity and makes tissue expansion techniques difficult. Traditionally most patients are advised to defer immediate breast reconstruction when adjuvant radiation is planned and are most often recommended surgery involving autologous tissue reconstruction rather then breast implants.

Systemic therapy

Systemic therapy uses medications to treat cancer cells throughout the body. Any combination of systemic treatments may be used to treat breast cancer. Systemic treatments include chemotherapy, immune therapy, and hormonal therapy.


Chemotherapy (drug treatment for cancer) may used before surgery, after surgery, or instead of surgery in those patients who are unsuitable for surgery.

See breast cancer chemotherapy.

Hormonal treatment

Patients with estrogen receptor positive tumors will typically receive hormonal therapy after chemotherapy is completed. Typical hormonal treatments include:

  • Tamoxifen is typically given to premenopausal women to inhibit the estrogen receptors
  • Aromatase inhibitors are typically given to postmenopausal women to lower the amount of estrogen in their systems
  • GnRH-analogues
  • ovarian ablation or suppression is used in premenopausal women

Targeted therapy

In patients whose cancer expresses an over-abundance of the HER2 protein, a monoclonal antibody known as trastuzumab (Herceptin ®) is used to block the activity of the HER2 protein in breast cancer cells, slowing their growth. This drug was originally used only in the treatment of patients with metastatic disease, however in the summer of 2005 two large clinical trials published results suggesting that patients with early-stage disease also benefit significantly from Herceptin. The drug was approved by the FDA in 1998 for the treatment of metastatic breast cancer, though oncologists have also been using it since 2005 for postoperative patients with localized, Her-2/neu positive disease.

Antiangiogenic therapy

A commercially-available monoclonal antibody that blocks the activation of the VEGF receptor, bevacizumab, underwent testing in a randomized clinical trial in patients with metastatic breast cancer. Bevacizumab has improved overall survival in both lung cancer and colon cancer by blocking the growth of new blood vessels around tumors, and by improving the permeability profile of tumor blood vessels to enhance the delivery of chemotherapy to the tumor. Results were presented in abstract form at the San Antonio Breast Cancer Meeting in 2005 and updated in 2006 . There has been no formal publication of the data in the peer-reviewed literature as of May, 2007. The data indicate that bevacizumab delays disease progression for up to five months over conventional chemotherapy, but survival was no better. Genentech, manufacturer of bevacizumab, has filed a supplemental biological application with the FDA for approval of bevacizumab in the setting of metastatic breast cancer, on the strength of the improvement in progression-free survival.



In the May 12, 2007, edition of the scientific journal, Nature Genetics, researchers from Canada's McGill University reported that they have developed a potential drug target for treating up to 40 percent of breast cancers by blocking an enzyme called PTPB1, which has been implicated in the onset of breast cancer in mouse models of the disease. Elevated levels of PTPB1 have also been found in diabetes and obesity. A drug to block the activity of PTPB1 is under development by Merck, and was found to delay the development of breast tumors and prevent lung cancer up to two months from the administration of the drug. The researchers hope to continue further research in mouse models which are also HER-2 positive (responsive to Herceptin) so that the drug could benefit a significant population of women.[92]

Flax seeds

Preliminary research into flax seeds indicate that flax can significantly inhibit breast cancer growth and metastasis, and enhance the inhibitory effect of tamoxifen on estrogen-dependent tumors.[93][94][95][96]

Traditional Chinese medicine

The use of traditional Chinese medicine to treat breast cancer has been claimed, but no successful clinical trials have yet been reported.

Psychological aspects of breast cancer diagnosis and treatment

The emotional impact of cancer diagnosis, symptoms, treatment, and related issues can be severe. Most larger hospitals are associated with cancer support groups which can help patients cope with the many issues that come up in a supportive environment with other people with experience with similar issues. Online cancer support groups are also very beneficial to cancer patients, especially in dealing with uncertainty and body-image problems inherent in cancer treatment.


There are several prognostic factors associated with breast cancer. Stage is the single most important prognostic factor in breast cancer, as it will take into consideration local involvement, lymph node status and whether metastatic disease is present or not. The higher the stage at the time of diagnosis, the worse the prognosis of breast cancer is. Node negative breast cancer patients have a much better prognosis compared to node positive patients.

Presence of estrogen and progesterone receptors in the cancer cell is another important prognostic factor, and may guide treatment. Hormone receptor positive breast cancer is usually associated with much better prognosis compared to hormone negative breast cancer.

HER2/neu status has also been described as a prognostic factor. Patients whose cancer cells are positive for HER2/neu have more aggressive disease and may be treated with trastuzumab, a monoclonal antibody that targets this protein.

Breast cancer in males

Less than 1% of breast cancers occur in men, and incidence is about 1 in 100,000. Men with gynaecomastia do not have a higher risk of developing breast cancer.[97] There may be an increased incidence of breast cancer in men with prostate cancer. The prognosis, even in stage I cases, is worse in men than in women.[98] The treatment of men with breast cancer is similar to that in older women. Since the male breast tissue is confined to the area directly behind the nipple, treatment for males has usually been a mastectomy with axillary surgery. This may be followed by adjuvant radiotherapy, hormone therapy (such as tamoxifen), or chemotherapy.

Breast cancer metastasis

Most people understand breast cancer as something that happens in the breast. However it can metastasise (spread) via lymphatics to nearby lymph nodes, usually those under the arm. That is why surgery for breast cancer always involves some type of surgery for the glands under the arm — either axillary clearance, sampling, or sentinel node biopsy.

Breast cancer can also spread to other parts of the body via blood vessels. So it can spread to the lungs, pleura (the lining of the lungs), liver, brain, and most commonly to the bones. Seventy percent of the time that breast cancer spreads to other locations, it spreads to bone, especially the vertebrae and the long bones of the arms, legs, and ribs. Breast cancer cells "set up house" in the bones and form tumors. Usually when breast cancer spreads to bone, it eats away healthy bone, causing weak spots, where the bones can break easily. That is why breast cancer patients are often seen wearing braces or using a wheelchair, and why they complain about aching bones.

When breast cancer is found in bones, it has usually spread to more than one site. At this stage, it is treatable, often for many years, but it is not curable. Like normal breast cells, these tumors in the bone often thrive on female hormones, especially estrogen. Therefore, the doctor often treats the patient with medicines that lower her estrogen levels.

Breast cancer awareness

In the month of October, breast cancer is recognized by survivors, family and friends of survivors and/or victims of the disease. A pink ribbon is worn to recognize the struggle that sufferers face when battling the cancer.

Pink for October is an initiative started by Matthew Oliphant, which asks that any sites willing to help make people aware of breast cancer, change their template or layout to include the color pink, so that when visitors view the site, they see that the majority of the site is pink. Then after reading a short amount of information about breast cancer, or being redirected to another site, they are aware of the disease itself.

See also

  • List of notable breast cancer patients according to occupation
  • List of notable breast cancer patients according to survival status
  • List of breast carcinogenic substances
  • Mammary tumor for breast cancer in other animals
  • Breast reconstruction
  • Alcohol and cancer
  • Mammography Quality Standards Act
  • National Breast Cancer Coalition
  • Breast Cancer Action
  • Barron Lerner (Physician)
  • William Stewart Halsted (Radical Masectomy)
  • International Agency for Research on Cancer
  • The Hormone Foundation
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  • American Cancer Society - Learn About Breast Cancer Page
  • History of breast cancer treatment
  • The Breast: Neoplasms of the Breast
  • Breast Cancer Care (UK charity)
  • Abortion and Breast Cancer
  • National Cancer Institute: Breast Cancer
  • Breast Cancer Campaign (UK research charity)
  • Imaginis -Award winning Breast Cancer site

Research and statistics

  • Breast cancer incidence by country


  • RadiologyInfo - The radiology information resource for patients: Breast Cancer
  • Surgery Choices for Women with Early-Stage Breast Cancer, National Cancer Institute
  • Mastectomy vs.n Lumpectomy: Who Decides?, National Research Center for Women & Families
  • Australia: Cancer Control Bulletin Alcohol and cancer risk
  • Cornell University Alcohol and the Risk of Breast Cancer


  • Mayo Clinic: How the grading system for cancerous tumors was developed.
  • Interviews with Breast Cancer Experts

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