General Information about Breast 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, which have many smaller sections called lobules. Lobules end in dozens of tiny bulbs that can produce milk. The lobes, lobules, and bulbs are linked by thin tubes called ducts.

Drawing of female breast anatomy showing  the lymph nodes, nipple, areola, chest wall, ribs, muscle, fatty tissue, lobe, and 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 calledlymph. Lymph vessels lead to organs called lymph nodes. Lymph nodes are small bean-shaped structures that are found throughout the body. They filter substances in a fluid called 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 PDQ summary on Unusual Cancers of Childhood for information about childhood breast cancer.

Age and health history can affect the risk of developing 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. People who think they may be at risk should discuss this with their doctor. Risk factors for breast cancer include the following:

  • Older age.
  • Menstruating at an early age.
  • Older age at first birth or never having given birth.
  • A personal history of breast cancer or benign (noncancer) breast disease.
  • A mother or sister with breast cancer.
  • Treatment with radiation therapy to the breast/chest.
  • Breast tissue that is dense on a mammogram.
  • Taking hormones such as estrogen and progesterone.
  • Drinking alcoholic beverages.
  • Being white.

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 approximately 5% to 10% of all breast cancer. Some altered genes related to breast cancer are more common in certain ethnic groups.

Women who have an altered gene related to breast cancer and who have had breast cancer in one breast have an increased risk of developing breast cancer in the other breast. These women also have an increased risk of developing ovarian cancer, and may have an increased risk of developing other cancers. Men who have an altered gene related to breast cancer also have an increased risk of developing this disease. For more information, see the PDQ summary on Male Breast Cancer Treatment.

Tests have been developed that can detect altered genes. These genetic tests are sometimes done for members of families with a high risk of cancer. See the following PDQ summaries for more information:

  • Breast Cancer Screening
  • Breast Cancer Prevention
  • Genetics of Breast and Ovarian Cancer

Possible signs of breast cancer include a lump or change in the breast.

Breast cancer may cause any of the following signs and symptoms. Check with your doctor if any of the following problems occur:

  • A lump or thickening in or near the breast or in the underarm area.
  • A change in the size or shape of the breast.
  • A dimple or puckering in the skin of the breast.
  • A nipple turned inward into the breast.
  • Fluid, other than breast milk, from the nipple, especially if it’s bloody.
  • Scaly, red, or swollen skin on the breast, nipple, or areola (the dark area of skin that is around the nipple).
  • Dimples in the breast that look like the skin of an orange, called peau d’orange.

Other conditions that are not breast cancer may cause these same symptoms.

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