Breast Cancer: Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis & Treatment

Breast cancer is a prevalent and potentially dangerous disease impacting millions globally. It occurs when cells within the breast tissue grow uncontrollably and form a tumor, which may eventually become malignant. 

While both men and women can develop breast cancer, it is far more common in women, making it the most frequently diagnosed cancer among females globally.

Early detection plays a crucial role in breast cancer treatment and management, as symptoms often appear subtle, or not at all, when tumors are still small. 

Understanding the different types, causes, diagnosis, prevention, and treatment options available allows patients and healthcare providers to create the best strategic plan for dealing with this disease.

Prognosis and survival rates vary, based on factors such as cancer stage, type, and the individual’s response, but, as a rule, early intervention is always advisable. 

Important Information for Breast Cancer

Early detection significantly impacts breast cancer treatment success and outcomes.

Regular self-examinations, routine screenings and mammograms, particularly for women over 40 or those with a family history of breast cancer, are vital. Any abnormal changes noticed during self-examinations should prompt immediate medical consultation for further evaluation.

There are various types and treatment options for breast cancer that tailor management strategies to individual needs.

Management of breast cancer often involves a mixture of treatments, which may include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, hormone therapy, or targeted drugs.

Awareness of risk factors and prevention strategies can help reduce the incidence of breast cancer. While some risk factors can’t be changed, leading a healthy lifestyle can help lower the risk.

Symptoms of Breast Cancer

Breast cancer symptoms can vary, but some common indicators include:

Lump in the Breast

Frequently, the initial indication of breast cancer is a lump or a thickened area that feels unlike the surrounding tissue.

These lumps can be painless or tender to the touch.

Change in Size, Shape, or Appearance 

Any alterations in the size, shape, or appearance of a breast should be monitored, as this may indicate a possible issue.

Not all changes in breasts indicate cancer, but it’s crucial to seek medical consultation to rule out the possibility. 

Skin Changes 

The presence of dimpling, redness, or flaking on the breast skin can be a sign of breast cancer.

While skin changes can have many benign causes, any unexplained changes on the breast skin warrant a medical consultation.

Nipple Inversion

A newly inverted nipple or retraction can be a symptom of breast cancer.

While some symptoms, like lumps and skin changes, are more commonly associated with breast cancer, other less common symptoms can also occur:

Swelling in the Armpit

Sometimes, breast cancer can affect the lymph nodes, causing swelling or a lump under the arm.

Some breast cancers develop in the upper outer part of the breast, close to the armpit, and can spread to lymph nodes in this area even before the tumor is large enough to feel.

Nipple Discharge 

Although not always indicative of cancer, nipple discharge that is bloody, clear, or contains pus should be examined by a healthcare professional.

The discharge may originate from one breast only and be persistent.

Breast Pain 

Persistent breast pain, especially when localized to one specific area, can be a less common symptom of breast cancer. Most breast pains aren’t due to cancer, but persistent pain that does not fluctuate with a menstrual cycle and is localized to one area, particularly if it’s associated with other symptoms, could be a cause for concern.

It is essential to be familiar with your own breast tissue, as knowing what is normal for you can help detect any changes early. Regular screening and mammograms are vital for early detection and intervention.

Causes & Risk Factors

The exact cause of breast cancer is unclear, but several risk factors are associated, including age, genetics, dense breast tissue, and exposure to estrogen over time. 

Lifestyle factors like obesity, lack of physical activity, consumption of alcohol, and certain hormone therapies can also increase your risk. It’s important to discuss these risk factors with a healthcare provider.

General Risk Factors

Some general risk factors for breast cancer include age, sex, and race. Most breast cancers are diagnosed after age 50, but it can affect people of any age group. Women are more likely to develop breast cancer than men, but it’s important to note that men can also be diagnosed with this disease.

Certain races, such as Caucasian women, have a slightly higher risk of developing breast cancer compared to African-American women, although African-American women are more likely to die from the disease due to various factors.

Genetic Factors

Inherited gene mutations play a significant role in breast cancer risk. Women with mutations in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes have a higher risk of developing breast and ovarian cancers.

A family history of breast cancer, especially in a first-degree relative (mother, sister, or daughter), can also increase the risk.

Lifestyle Factors

Several lifestyle factors can contribute to breast cancer risk, such as:

Estrogen exposure 

Prolonged exposure to estrogen, especially in the form of hormone therapy to treat menopause symptoms, can increase breast cancer risk.

Women who start their periods at a younger age or enter menopause later get more menstrual cycles, leading to longer lifetime exposure to estrogen, which may increase breast cancer risk.

Alcohol Consumption

Drinking alcohol has been linked to an elevated risk of breast cancer, with the risk increasing as the amount of alcohol consumed increases.

Reducing alcohol intake can form a part of a breast cancer prevention strategy.


Being overweight or obese can increase the risk of breast cancer, particularly for postmenopausal women.

Excess fat tissue can increase levels of estrogen and inflammation, both of which can drive the development of breast cancer.

By understanding these risk factors, individuals can take steps to reduce their risk of developing breast cancer. 

Types of Breast Cancer

Breast cancer is a complex disease with various types, each having its unique characteristics and behavior.

In this section, we will discuss some of the most common types, including Ductal Carcinoma, Lobular Carcinoma, Inflammatory Breast Cancer, and a few Rare Breast Cancers.

Ductal Carcinoma

Ductal Carcinoma is the most common type of breast cancer and originates in the milk ducts. It can be classified into two main subtypes:

Ductal Carcinoma in Situ (DCIS)

In this non-invasive form, cancer cells are confined to the milk ducts and have not spread to neighboring tissues. If detected early, the prognosis for DCIS is often favorable.

While evaluated as an early form of cancer, DCIS isn’t life-threatening. However, it requires treatment to prevent progression into invasive cancer.

Invasive Ductal Carcinoma (IDC) 

This is the most prevalent form of invasive breast cancer, wherein the cancer has spread beyond the milk ducts.

It can invade nearby breast tissue and potentially metastasize to other organs.

Lobular Carcinoma

Lobular Carcinoma originates in the lobules, also known as the milk-producing glands of the breast. Similar to ductal carcinoma, it can be divided into two subtypes:

Lobular Carcinoma in Situ (LCIS) 

LCIS is a non-invasive condition where abnormal cells are found in the lobules. 

It’s a marker that increases the risk of developing invasive breast cancer later in life.

Invasive Lobular Carcinoma (ILC) 

ILC is an invasive form of breast cancer where cancerous cells from the lobules have spread into nearby breast tissue or lymph nodes.

It’s the second most common type of breast cancer, though it accounts for only a small percentage of cases.

Inflammatory Breast Cancer

Inflammatory Breast Cancer (IBC) is an uncommon and aggressive variant of breast cancer in which cancer cells obstruct the lymphatic vessels in the skin, making the breast look red, enlarged, and inflamed. 

IBC tends to grow and spread quickly, requiring immediate treatment. This type of cancer accounts for approximately 1-5% of all breast cancers in the United States.

Rare Breast Cancers

The less common types of breast cancer include:

Metaplastic Breast Cancer 

A rare and often aggressive type of cancer with cells that look different from typical breast cancer cells.

It accounts for less than 1% of all breast cancers and often has a poorer prognosis. The rarity and diversity of metaplastic breast cancer can make it challenging to treat.

Paget’s Disease of the Breast 

This type of cancer begins on the nipple’s surface and extends to the areola, often accompanied by underlying ductal carcinoma.

Treatment typically involves surgery to remove the nipple and areola, and often the breast tissue. 

Phyllodes Tumor 

A rare breast tumor that forms in the connective tissue, usually benign but can be malignant.

Treatment usually involves surgical removal of the tumor, often with a margin of normal tissue. 

Breast Sarcoma

A very rare type of breast cancer that originates in the connective tissue of the breast, such as muscle, fat, or blood vessels.

Different subtypes exist, including angiosarcoma and leiomyosarcoma, specifying the specific tissue in which the cancer originates. Due to their rarity, breast sarcomas can be challenging to diagnose and treat.

Knowing the type of breast cancer helps determine the most effective treatment strategies for each individual case. Early detection and a multidisciplinary approach are crucial for successful management and improved outcomes for patients.

Diagnostic Techniques

There are various diagnostic techniques used to detect and diagnose breast cancer.

Breast Self-exam

Starting with a breast self-exam, where individuals can check for any lumps or changes in the breast.

They involve visually and physically examining your breasts for any changes such as lumps, thickening, or changes in size or shape.

Medical professionals also use a combination of imaging tests such as:


A mammogram is an X-ray of the breast, often used as a screening tool to detect early signs of breast cancer.

Mammograms are a key diagnostic tool for detecting breast cancer often before they can be felt through physical examination.


An ultrasound uses sound waves to create images of breast tissue, helping to identify any abnormalities.

It’s often used as a follow-up test after an abnormal finding on a mammogram or clinical breast exam to distinguish between fluid-filled cysts and solid tumors.

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) 

Using radio waves and magnets, MRI scans can generate detailed images of breast tissue, aiding in the diagnosis of breast cancer. It is often used in conjunction with mammography for high-risk individuals, or to better assess the extent of cancer after diagnosis.

An MRI is an important tool in specific situations but isn’t used for routine screening in most women due to its high cost and tendency to show more false-positive results than mammography.


To confirm the presence of cancerous cells, a biopsy is often performed, where a small sample of breast tissue is removed and analyzed.

There are different types of biopsies, such as fine needle aspiration, core needle biopsy, and vacuum-assisted biopsy.

Staging Process

When breast cancer gets detected, the staging process commences to assess the body’s cancer progression and identify the most suitable treatment approach.

The stages of breast cancer are:

Stage 0 

Known as ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) or lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS), this stage is characterized by abnormal cells limited to the lining of breast ducts or lobules.

With early detection and appropriate treatment, the prognosis for stage 0 breast cancer is generally excellent.

Stage I

Cancer tumor is small, up to 2cm in size, and has not spread beyond the breast.

The prognosis for stage 1 breast cancer is highly favorable with the right treatment, usually involving surgery to remove the tumor, and potentially radiation therapy or systemic drug therapy. 

Stage II

The tumor is larger, up to 5cm in size, or has spread to nearby lymph nodes.

The prognosis can be quite good with appropriate treatment and care, though regular follow-ups are key to monitoring progress and prompt treatment of any recurrence.

Stage III

At this point, the cancer has extended more extensively to the nearby tissues or lymph nodes.

Treatment for stage 3 may be more aggressive, often involving a combination of surgery, radiation, and systemic drug therapy. 

Stage IV

Cancer has metastasized to distant organs, such as the liver, bones, or lungs.

Treatment for stage 4 focuses on managing symptoms and enhancing the quality of life as it’s generally not curable. 

Treatment Options

When it comes to breast cancer treatment, there are several options available. The selected treatment is based on the breast cancer type, its stage, and the patient’s general health condition. 


Surgery is often the course to take out the cancerous tissue from the breast. For individuals with breast cancer, there are two main surgical options available:


In this procedure, the surgeon removes only the tumor and a small margin of surrounding healthy tissue.

Lumpectomy is typically followed by radiation therapy.


This involves removing the entire breast or a large portion of it, depending on the size and extent of the tumor.

After a mastectomy, some patients may choose to undergo breast reconstruction.


Chemotherapy uses specialized drugs to kill cancer cells, shrink tumors, or stop their growth. It can be given before surgery, to reduce the tumor size, or after surgery, to eliminate any remaining cancer cells.

Chemotherapy is usually given in cycles, with periods of treatment followed by recovery periods.

Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy employs high-energy beams aimed at eliminating cancer cells. In breast cancer treatment, it is often used after lumpectomy to reduce the risk of repeat occurrence by killing the remaining cancer cells.

There are two primary types of radiation treatment for breast cancer:

External beam radiation 

A machine delivers radiation to the tumor from outside the body.

Internal radiation (brachytherapy)

Radioactive seeds or pellets are placed directly into the breast tissue near the tumor.

Hormone Therapy

Some breast cancers are sensitive to hormones like estrogen and progesterone, which can promote their growth. Hormone therapy works by blocking the effects of these hormones or reducing their levels. 

It can be used as a stand-alone treatment or in combination with other therapies. Several medications are available for hormone therapy, such as aromatase inhibitors.

Targeted Therapy

Targeted therapy drugs are designed to attack specific characteristics of cancer cells, such as proteins on their surface or the genetic mutations that drive their growth.

For example, HER2-targeted therapies are used to treat breast cancers that overproduce the HER2 protein.


Immunotherapy utilizes the power of the body’s immune system to find and destroy cancer cells. Specific types of breast cancer, especially those with cells of elevated immune levels or specific genetic features, may respond well to immunotherapy.

Some FDA-approved immunotherapies for breast cancer can include atezolizumab.

Common side effects of breast cancer treatment may include fatigue and hair loss. It is important for patients to discuss these side effects with their healthcare providers and learn about ways to manage them.

In conclusion, a combination of these treatment options may be used to manage and treat breast cancer effectively. Each patient’s treatment plan is customized based on their specific circumstances and preferences. Always consult with the healthcare team to determine the best treatment strategy for your situation.

Prevention Strategies

Breast cancer prevention starts with leading a healthy lifestyle. By making healthier choices and being aware of risk factors, you can lower your chances of developing breast cancer. Here are some prevention strategies that can help reduce your risk.

Maintaining a Healthy Weight

Obesity, particularly after menopause, has been linked to a higher risk of breast cancer. By keeping your weight within a healthy range, you can reduce this risk significantly.

Following a balanced diet and engaging in regular physical activity can help with maintaining a healthy weight.

Limit alcohol consumption

The more alcohol you drink, the greater your risk of developing breast cancer.

It is recommended to limit yourself to no more than one drink a day, as even small amounts increase risk.

Exercise Regularly

Engaging in physical activity for at least 150 minutes a week or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity can help lower your risk of breast cancer.

Exercise has been shown to benefit even in small amounts; it’s never too late to start.

Breastfeed if Possible

Breastfeeding has been shown to play a role in breast cancer prevention. 

The longer you breastfeed, the more protection it offers.

Avoid Tobacco and Excess Exposure to Ionizing Radiation

Smoking and exposure to high levels of ionizing radiation are known to increase the risk of several types of cancer, including breast cancer. 

Limiting these exposures can help protect against breast cancer.

Eat a Healthy Diet

A diet rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins can provide essential nutrients to maintain overall health.

While no specific food or diet can guarantee breast cancer prevention, a balanced diet can play a role in reducing your risk.

Be Aware of Hormone Therapy

Long-term use of hormone therapy for menopause symptoms has been associated with a higher risk of breast cancer. If you’re considering hormone therapy, talk to your healthcare provider about other options and weigh the benefits against the risks.

By following these prevention strategies, you can adopt a proactive approach to reducing your risk of breast cancer. Always consult your healthcare provider about your personal risk factors and additional steps you can take for prevention.

Prognosis & Survival Rates

The prognosis and survival rates for breast cancer vary based on factors not limited to the cancer stage and the age of the individual. 

Typically, non-invasive breast cancers (stage 0) along with early-stage invasive breast cancers (stages I and II) have a more favorable prognosis compared to the later stage cancers (stages III and IV).

Stage 0 Prognosis

Stage 0 refers to non-invasive breast cancers, which have not spread beyond their location.

The prognosis at this point is usually the most favorable since the cancer is not yet aggressive. Timely detection and treatment can lead to high survival rates.

Stage I Prognosis

Stage 1 breast cancer is relatively early-stage and localized, meaning it has not spread beyond the breast. The survival rate for this stage is high; according to studies, the five-year relative survival rate is nearly 100%.

Individual prognosis can depend on various factors including overall health, age, hormone receptor status, and response to treatment. 

Breast Cancer at Advanced Stages

Later stages of breast cancer show a survival rate of as low as 66% five years after detection.

Comparatively, lung cancer and skin cancer have different survival rates and prognoses. Lung cancer, for instance, tends to have lower survival rates due to its late detection, while skin cancer has a relatively high survival rate as it is usually detected in early stages.

Understanding the prognosis and survival rates for each stage of breast cancer can help individuals make informed decisions about their treatment options. 

Dealing with Breast Cancer

To deal with breast cancer, it’s essential to be aware of the symptoms, know when to consult a doctor and understand the diagnosis and treatment process.

Early detection is crucial in managing breast cancer. Regular breast exams and being familiar with your breasts can help you identify any changes or potential signs of breast cancer.

Coping with a breast cancer diagnosis necessitates a balance of physical resistance and emotional resilience. Physical health during and post-treatment can be achieved through regular exercise, a balanced diet, and sufficient rest. 

Equally important is emotional well-being, for which joining support groups, mindfulness practices, or yoga and consulting with a mental health professional can be highly beneficial.

In times of struggle, seeking help and depending on your support network is acceptable. Connection with friends, family, and professional resources could substantially contribute to managing the practical aspects of diagnosis, treatment, and the emotional effects of breast cancer.

Engagement with support groups, therapists, and fellow patients can create a comforting environment. This sense of community can offer a source of understanding, support, and motivation during a difficult journey with breast cancer.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the common early signs of breast cancer?

Typical early indicators of breast cancer encompass a change in the breast’s size, shape, or outline, a mass or lump that could feel as tiny as a pea, and a persistent lump or thickened region in the breast or under the arm. 

Other symptoms can be nipple retraction, red or flaking nipple or breast skin, and nipple discharge other than breast milk. Swollen lymph nodes under the arm or near the collarbone can also be a sign of breast cancer spread.

How is breast cancer diagnosed?

Breast cancer is typically diagnosed through a combination of physical exams, imaging tests like mammograms or ultrasounds, and biopsy procedures to analyze tissue samples.

The results of these tests can help determine the type, stage, and characteristics of breast cancer, which are essential for developing an appropriate treatment plan.

What factors can lead to the development of breast cancer?

There are several factors associated with an increased risk of developing breast cancer, including age, gender, family history of breast cancer, certain inherited gene mutations (such as BRCA1 and BRCA2), and personal history of breast conditions.

Lifestyle factors such as obesity, physical inactivity, alcohol consumption, and hormone replacement therapy can also play a role in breast cancer development.

What are some effective prevention strategies for breast cancer?

Although some risk factors cannot be changed, there are ways to reduce the risk of developing breast cancer. Some preventative measures include maintaining a healthy weight, engaging in regular physical activity, limiting alcohol consumption, breastfeeding, and avoiding exposure to radiation and environmental pollution.

Additionally, for individuals at high risk, medications or risk-reducing surgeries can be considered as a preventive measure.

What are the main treatment options available for breast cancer?

Breast cancer treatment options vary depending on the type and stage of the cancer, as well as the patient’s overall health and preferences. Common treatments include surgery (lumpectomy or mastectomy), radiation therapy, chemotherapy, hormone therapy, targeted therapy, and immunotherapy. 

Often, a combination of treatments is used for the most effective approach.

How can one identify warning signs in breast cancer pictures?

When examining breast cancer pictures, look for visual signs such as lumps, dimpling or changes in the skin texture, nipple retraction or changes, and redness or swelling.

While these signs can be indicative of breast cancer, they are not definitive. It is crucial to consult with a healthcare provider for proper evaluation and diagnosis.