What you need to know about breast cancer

What you need to know about breast cancer

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Breast cancer is the most common invasive cancer in women, and the second main reason of cancer death in women, after lung cancer.

Fast facts on breast cancer:

Breast cancer is the most common cancer among women.

Here are some key points about breast cancer. More detail is in the main article.

Symptoms include a lump or thickening of the breast, and changes to the skin or the nipple.

Risk factors can be genetic, but some lifestyle factors, such as alcohol intake, make it more likely to occur.


The first symptoms of breast cancer are generally an area of thickened tissue in the breast, or a lump in the breast or in an armpit.

Other symptoms include:

  • a sunken or inverted nipple
  • a change in the size or shape of the breast
  • peeling, flaking, or scaling of the skin on the breast or nipple
  • a pain in the armpits or breast that does not change with the monthly cycle
  • 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 discharge from a nipple, possibly containing blood


Cancer is staged according to the size of the tumor and whether it has spread to lymph nodes or other parts of the body.

There are different ways of staging breast cancer. One way is from stage 0 to 4, but these may be broken down into smaller stages.

  • Stage 0: Known as ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), the cells are limited to within a duct and have not invaded surrounding tissues.
  • Stage 1: At the beginning of this stage, the tumor is up to 2 centimeters (cm) across and it has not affected any lymph nodes.
  • Stage 2: The tumor is 2 cm across and it has started to spread to nearby nodes.
  • Stage 3: The tumor is up to 5 cm across and it may have spread to some lymph nodes.
  • Stage 4: The cancer has spread to distant organs, especially the bones, liver, brain, or lungs.



After puberty, a woman’s breast consists of fat, connective tissue, and thousands of lobules, tiny glands that produce milk for breast-feeding. Tiny tubes, or ducts, carry the milk toward the nipple.

In cancer, the body’s cells multiply uncontrollably. It is the excessive cell growth that reasons cancer.

Breast cancer generally starts in the inner lining of milk ducts or the lobules that supply them with milk. From there, it can spread to other parts of the body.


Breast cancer can be:

Ductal carcinoma: This begins in the milk duct and is the most common type.

Lobular carcinoma: This starts in the lobules.

Invasive breast cancer is when the cancer cells break out from inside the lobules or ducts and invade nearby tissue, increasing the chance of spreading to other parts of the body.

Non-invasive breast cancer is when the cancer is still inside its place of origin and has not broken out. However, these cells can eventually develop into invasive breast cancer.


Treatment will depend on:

  • the type of breast cancer
  • the stage of the cancer
  • sensitivity to hormones
  • the patient’s age, overall health, and preferences

The main treatment options include:

  • radiation therapy
  • surgery
  • biological therapy, or targeted drug therapy
  • hormone therapy
  • chemotherapy

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