What is Breast Cancer – A Complete Guide
what is breast cancer

According to WHO, breast cancer is the most common type of cancer among women, as it affects 2.1 million women yearly. It also causes the greatest number of cancer-related deaths among women. In 2018, breast cancer caused approximately fifteen percent of all cancer-related deaths among women. However, while breast cancer is more prevalent among females, men can get it too, in rare cases.

There have been so many theories about the causes of breast cancer and what can be done to prevent it. While a lot of these are still uncertain, what is clear is that there is a need for proper awareness on breast cancer because early detection is still the best way to prevent deaths. So, the need for proper education on breast cancer cannot be overemphasized.

What Is Breast Cancer?

Breast cancer is a kind of cancer whereby cells in the breast grow out of control and forms a tumor that can be seen on an x-ray or felt as lumps in the breast. The human breast is made up of three main parts that work together; they are the lobules, duct, and connective tissues.

The lobules produce the breast milk, the duct transports the milk from the lobules to the nipples while the connective tissues connect and bring all the parts together. Usually, cancer begins in the duct or lobule and can sometimes, spread to other parts of the body through the blood vessels and lymph vessels in a situation called metastasized.

It is important to note that some breast lumps are non-malignant and thus, not cancerous. Non-malignant lumps are simply abnormal growths, they do not grow outside the breast and they are not life-threatening. However, some of these benign noncancerous lumps can increase the risk of cancer.

Once it is determined that there are lumps in the breast, it is important to immediately visit a health practitioner who can determine if the lumps are cancerous or benign or if the non-malignant lumps increase the risk of cancer in the future.

It is also important to note that while many types of the breast cancer cause lumps in the breast, not all do. This is why periodical health check is important for early detection.

Types of Breast Cancer

There are different types of breast cancer, mainly categorized by the part of breast cancer starts from.

  • Invasive Ductal Carcinoma (IDC)

It is also known as Infiltrating Ductal Carcinoma. For this type of breast cancer, cancer begins in the milk duct and spreads to the fibrous tissue of the breast outside the milk duct. It is the most common type of breast cancer, affecting approximately 80% of all breast cancer diagnoses. It is also the most common type that affects men.

  • Ductal Carcinoma In Situ (DCIS) 

This type of breast cancer is referred to as the earliest stage of breast cancer. Like the IDC, DCIS starts at the milk duct of the breast but unlike IDC, it is non-invasive (it hasn’t spread to the fibrous tissue of the breast or other parts of the body and has a low risk of spreading) and that is the main difference between both types of breast cancer. DCIS is highly treatable because it has yet to spread and is still in the original place (in situ). However, if it is left untreated for long, it can spread outside the milk duct to the connective tissue of the breast.

  • Metastatic Breast Cancer

Also known as Advanced Breast Cancer or Stage IV Breast Cancer, Metastatic Breast Cancer is the type that has spread beyond the breast or nearby lymph nodes to other parts of the body. It usually spreads to the brain, bones, liver or lungs. Cancer can be spread through different means. It can spread through the blood vessels or lymph vessels; it can spread when a healthy cell is taken over to replicate other abnormal cells; when cancer cells are transported through the bloodstream or the lymph system to other parts of the body; when cancer cells remain in the capillaries and move into nearby tissues or when new small tumors develop in the new location, through a process called micrometastases.

  • Triple-Negative Breast Cancer

This type of breast cancer is cancer that tests negative to the three most common types of receptors known to cause most breast cancer growth (estrogen receptors, progesterone receptors, and excess HER2 protein). This type is, therefore, more difficult to treat, spreads faster as well and more likely to reoccur. The usual treatment that targets the common receptors is ineffective, although chemotherapy is still very effective, especially in its early stages. The Triple Negative Breast Cancer occurs in about 20% of all breast cancer diagnosis and has been researched to likely affect younger people, African-Americans, and Hispanics.

  • Inflammatory Breast Cancer (IBC) 

IBC is a very rare type of breast cancer and occurs only around 1-5% of a breast cancer diagnosis. Although it is a type of IDC, it also completely differs from the other types of breast cancer. IBC spreads to the skin and lymph vessels of the breast but produces no distinct lump that can be isolated. However, the cancer cells block the lymph vessels in the skin, causing the breast to look inflamed, hence the term, inflammatory. Other symptoms may include itching and rash and the breast is also likely to become red and swollen. IBC spreads rapidly and aggressive treatment is usually required.

There are other types of breast cancer which are uncommon. They include Tubular Carcinoma (the cancer cells feel like a spongy area instead of lumps and this type is common among older women), Medullary Carcinoma (does not always appear as lumps, might appear as spongy change of breast tissue), Mucinous Carcinoma (it is accompanied by mucus production) and Mammary Paget Disease (a breast cancer type that affects the nipple and areola).

What Are The Causes Of Breast Cancer In Females?

There is no known distinct cause for breast cancer. However, research has been able to discover certain hormonal, lifestyle and environmental factors that serve as risk factors.

Risk Factors

  • Genetics: People who carry the breast cancer gene 1 and 2 (BRCA1 and BRCA2) are at a high risk of breast cancer. It is important to take breast cancer examination more seriously if there is someone in your family who has been diagnosed with breast cancer.
  • History: People who have a history of breast cancer are at risk of having breast cancer again. Also, individuals who have had non-cancerous cancer lumps are also at risk. Furthermore, people with a history of cancer on other parts of the body like the ovary, fallopian tube, peritoneal are also at risk of breast cancer.
  • Age: The older you are, the higher your risk of breast cancer. A 60-year-old is at a higher risk than a 20-year-old.
  • Obesity: Obesity has also been known to increase the risk of breast cancer.
  • Gender: Women are more likely to have breast cancer than men.
  • Alcohol consumption: Research has shown that women who consume alcohol stand a higher chance of getting breast cancer than those who don’t.
  • Radiation Exposure: If you received radiation treatment for different cancer, especially in the chest area, it increases the risk of breast cancer.
  • Breastfeeding: Breastfeeding, especially for over a year, could reduce the risk of breast cancer.
  • Oestrogen exposure: Women who start their period early or start their menopause late are at a higher risk because oestrogen levels are high between these periods.
  • Pregnancy: Women who have never been pregnant stand a higher chance of getting breast cancer than women who have.
  • Hormone treatments: Studies have shown that all forms of hormone treatments, including oral contraceptives, may increase the risk of breast cancer.

It is important to note that some people with none of these risk factors have been known to be diagnosed with breast cancer while some people with the factor never have. There is no known reason why this happens.

Symptoms of Breast Cancer

The symptoms vary actually but the most common symptoms are;

  • Lumps in the breast or underarm
  • Itching
  • Rashes or irritation in any part of the breast
  • Swelling and reddening of any part of the breast
  • Nipple discharge, different from breast milk
  • Pain in the breast
  • Change in the size or shape of the breast

If you have any of these symptoms, it is important to see a doctor right away.

Breast Cancer Treatment

Treatments are usually are a combination of surgery, hormone therapy, chemotherapy, radiation or targeted therapies.

Surgery: The type of surgery usually depends on the diagnosis and individual preference. Largely, surgery is targeted at removing the tumors and sometimes, other affected tissues and parts of the breast. In some cases, reconstruction is needed to make the breast look natural.

Hormone Therapy: This treatment is targeted at preventing hormone-sensitive breast cancers from returning after surgery.

Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy drugs can be prescribed to kill cancer cells if there is a high chance of reoccurrence or spread. It could also be used before surgery to shrink the tumor to ease the removal during surgery.

Radiation: This treatment targets tumour to kill any remaining cancer cells.

Targeted Therapy: This is a newer and more effective treatment that kills specific cancer cells without affecting normal cells. They are currently used alongside chemotherapy.


Breast cancer like every other form of cancer can be prevented and successfully treated if detected early. Check out Oncopadi, #1 digital cancer clinic in Nigeria

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