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About Breast Cancer

  • Breast cancer, a disease that often begins in the lobules or ducts of breast tissue, is the most common type of cancer among women in the United States (other than skin cancer). In 2013, nearly 233,000 American women will be diagnosed with breast cancer. While breast cancer affects mostly women, men can also develop the disease.

    The identification of various subtypes of breast cancer has made it possible to personalize treatment according to the tumor type, stage of disease, and the patient's overall health and preferences. Physicians have a better understanding of which patients are likely to benefit from a particular treatment, and can deliver chemotherapy, radiation therapy and/or surgery much more precisely.

    anatomy of the breast
  • Risk factors for breast cancer

    Risk factors for breast cancer include but are not limited to the following:

    • Being female (about 100 times more women than men develop breast cancer).
    • Older age (the risk of breast cancer rises with age).
    • Ethnicity (Caucasian women are at slightly higher risk of developing breast cancer than are African American or Asian women, but African American women are at higher risk of developing triple-negative breast cancer, a specific subtype of the disease).
    • History of breast cancer or prior treatment with radiation therapy to the breast/chest in childhood or early adulthood.
    • Consuming more than two alcoholic drinks per day on a regular basis.
    • Dense breast tissue (women with dense as opposed to fatty breast tissue are at a higher risk of developing breast cancer).
    • Early menstruation or late menopause.
    • Exposure to certain drugs, including DES, Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) and certain other medications.
    • History of lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS), atypical ductal or lobular hyperplasia and other specific conditions identified on breast biopsies (these non-cancerous conditions can suggest a higher risk of developing breast cancer).

    Genetic and inherited risk factors

    In addition to risk factors associated with lifestyle and environmental exposures, there are breast cancer risk factors that cluster in families. Certain genetic markers have been identified which, if present, may significantly increase your personal risk of breast cancer. The Dana-Farber Cancer Genetics and Prevention Program is a nationally recognized program focused on assessing genetic risk factors associated with breast cancer and designing individualized plans for managing hereditary and familial breast cancer risk. Genetic testing analyzing the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes and other breast cancer-associated genes is performed, as appropriate. Find out more about our services to help individuals at higher risk for breast cancer.

    Stages of breast cancer

    We provide personalized treatment plans based on you, your needs, and your specific type of cancer. Current research and care focuses on the four major subtypes of breast cancer. Lab analysis can determine which subtype of breast cancer you have:

    • Ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS)
      Also known as pre-invasive breast cancer, DCIS is very treatable and highly curable. In DCIS, abnormal cells are found in the lining of a breast duct but have not spread outside the duct to other tissues in the breast.

      DCIS is diagnosed in nearly 60,000 women in the United States each year, a significant increase over previous decades, due to the widespread use of digital mammograms and MRIs, which detect DCIS at a smaller, earlier stage. When surgically removed with lumpectomy and usually followed by radiation or a mastectomy with reconstruction, the disease is nearly always curable.

      Research from Dana-Farber Brigham Cancer Center scientists may lead to screening tests to better understand whether some patients with DCIS might be able to safely receive less treatment and which patients might benefit from more aggressive treatment.

      Learn more about our specialized Ductal Carcinoma in Situ (DCIS) Program.

    • Invasive breast cancer
      Invasive cancers have started to break through normal breast tissue barriers and have the potential to spread to lymph nodes or other parts of the body. There are nearly 233,000 new cases of invasive breast cancer in women each year.

      Biologically, breast cancer is not a single disease but actually several different diseases, which can act differently depending on their distinctive genetic makeup. Invasive breast cancer is categorized as stage I, II, III, or IV, depending on the amount and location of cancer in the body. Treatment plans for any stage of breast cancer include a multidisciplinary approach, and may include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy/endocrine therapy, and/or targeted biologic therapy, such as trastuzumab.

      • Inflammatory breast cancer
        With inflammatory breast cancer (IBC), cancer cells block the lymph vessels of the skin of the breast, causing the breast to appear red or inflamed. Unlike other types of breast cancer, IBC generally does not present with a lump.

        If you experience any of these symptoms, contact your physician immediately. IBC is typically diagnosed through a clinical exam, and confirmed with a breast biopsy. Prompt and accurate diagnosis and treatment is important because of the aggressive nature of the disease. The treatment starts with systemic therapy (chemotherapy and targeted therapy), followed by surgery and then radiation therapy.

        Learn more about our specialized Inflammatory Breast Cancer Program.

      • Metastatic breast cancer
        Metastatic breast cancer has spread from the breast to other distant parts of the body. Surgery is less commonly part of the treatment plan, but may be included in some circumstances.

        Many encouraging clinical trials at Dana-Farber Brigham Cancer Center are focused on finding new and more effective treatments for women with metastatic breast cancer. A study, called Ending Metastatic Breast Cancer for Everyone (EMBRACE), which seeks to learn more about the biology of advanced breast cancer, as well as the treatment experiences of patients living with it.

        Learn more about clinical trials for metastatic breast cancer.

        Learn more about metastatic breast cancer.

    Specialized programs

    Recognizing that not all breast cancer patients have the same needs, Dana-Farber Brigham Cancer Center created specialty programs designed specifically for individuals with metastatic breast cancer, young women with breast cancer, inflammatory breast cancer, breast cancer during pregnancy, individuals with higher genetic risk, breast cancer in men, and ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS).