Breast Cancer: Types, Symptoms, Prevention and Treatment

Dr.Poonam Sharma

January 25, 2022

Breast cancer is the abnormal growth of breast cells that develops into a mass of tissue, known as a tumor which is malignant in nature. It can be found in both females and males, though it’s more common in females. Breast cancer generally occurs in the cells of the lobules, i.e. the milk-producing glands. However, if left untreated it can affect any part of the breast, the skin, lymph nodes, ducts, or vessels. Approximately one in every eight women is diagnosed with breast cancer in their life. However, on a good note, not all types of cancers lead to death and are treatable, if detected early.

Modern-day science uses several techniques to treat breast cancer. Therefore, the chances of surviving and recovering from breast cancer are promising. The survival rates of breast cancer have exponentially increased in the past couple of decades. Research in the field of breast cancer is ongoing. Moreover, many new techniques and medications to treat breast cancer are in the development phase. 

Signs and Symptoms of Breast Cancer

Most types of breast cancer have similar signs and symptoms:

  • Change in the appearance of the nipple, becoming inverted or swollen
  • Change in the shape or size 
  • Lump formation 
  • Discharge from the nipple
  • Rashes around the nipple
  • Pain in the area
  • Peeling or flaking skin 

If you notice these symptoms, please get in touch with your physician. Unfortunately, the early stages of breast cancer don’t show obvious signs. Therefore, it’s essential to go for regular checkups and screenings to detect abnormalities.

Risk Factors of Breast Cancer

Breast cancer has many risk factors. Some of these include: 

1. Genetic Markers

One of the leading causes of breast cancer is the mutation of BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. These genes regulate the growth of breast tissue. However, a mutagen or mistakes during DNA replication can lead to a defective gene. This mutated gene can cause uncontrollable growth and differentiation of breast tissue. The defect in the BRCA genes can be inherited and passed down from generation to generation. Having a defective BRCA gene doesn’t guarantee the occurrence of breast cancer. However, it can increase your risk of having this type of cancer. 

2. Gender

Although breast cancer can happen in males and females, women are more likely to have it. It is the second most common type of cancer among women. Additionally, women with dense breast tissue are more likely to develop breast cancer than other women. According to WHO, the 2020 statistics show that there were around 2.3 million women in the world who were diagnosed with breast cancer. 

3. Hormonal Influence

The two sex hormones found in women are estrogen and progesterone. Both of these hormones help regulate the menstrual cycle and assist in developing breast tissue. Secretion of estrogen hormone can cause the growth of breast tissue. Therefore, the longer your body is exposed to estrogen, the more chances you may develop breast cancer. It is the main reason behind the following risk factors:

Starting Menses at an Early Age

Women who menstruate at an early age have exposure to estrogen early on in their lives.

Having Late Menopause

It causes women to produce estrogen for longer in their bodies.

4. Hormone Replacement Therapy

Some women medicate themselves with estrogen (hormone) to relieve from the tremendous symptoms of menopause. However, taking synthetic estrogen and progesterone for more than a year can cause a higher risk for breast cancer. The risk of developing breast cancer can be reduced once one stops taking those synthetic hormones.

5. Age

The risk of getting breast cancer increases with age. The majority of women with breast cancer are above the age of 50. Therefore, women above 50 should regularly screen for breast cancer. 

6. Lifestyle and Environmental Factors

Some lifestyle practices like drinking alcohol and smoking can increase breast cancer risk. These activities can expose the body to carcinogens, which can cause breast cancer. Being obese or overweight can also increase the risk of having breast cancer.

7. Having a History of Breast Cancer

If you’ve had a history of breast cancer or benign breast tumours, you may be at a higher risk for developing breast cancer. It is called recurrence and it can be local, regional or distant.  

Types of Breast Cancer

There are many types of breast cancers. They are:

1. IDC

Invasive Ductal Carcinoma, or IDC, is the most common cancer found in breast tissue. It makes up around 70-80% of all breast cancers. According to a study, it originates in the milk ducts and spreads to surrounding tissue and blood vessels. Additionally, if not treated, it may spread to surrounding organs. IDC’s treatments include surgery to remove the tumour, radiotherapy and chemotherapy. 

2. ILC

Invasive Lobular Cancer is also invading breast cancer. It starts in the milk-producing glands called lobules. From there, it migrates and spreads to surrounding tissue and blood vessels. According to research, symptoms of this cancer are thickening and swelling of the area, change in skin texture, or an inverted mamilla. Treatment options of ILC include surgery to remove the tumour, along with radiotherapy and chemotherapy. 


Ductal Carcinoma In Situ is non-invasive cancer, which confines only the cells of the milk ducts. As per a study, the symptoms of DCIS include bloody mamilla discharge and a lump formation. It is easily detectable during a screening procedure or mammogram. The treatment of DCIS is by using radiotherapy or surgery. 


Lobular carcinoma in situ is another non-invasive cancer. As per a study, it develops in the breast’s lobules and has similar symptoms as DCIS. Its diagnosis and treatment are also identical to DCIS. 

5. Angiosarcoma 

It refers to the cancer of the breast’s blood vessels and lymph nodes. It’s a rare type of cancer. It makes up about 1% of the cancers in the breast. As per research, symptoms of angiosarcomas include a bruise, lesion or colour change in the skin. The treatment of Angiosarcomas is by using radiotherapy, chemotherapy, or surgery.

6. Male Breast Cancer

Breast cancer in males is rare, but it may occur at any age. Symptoms of male breast cancer are lump formation, change in skin texture, colour change in the skin. Its treatment includes surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. 

7. Phyllodes Tumour

It is a rare breast cancer that occurs in the breast’s connective tissue. In other words, in the muscles and ligaments of the breast. About 75% of phyllodes tumours are benign or non-invasive. The rest are malignant or invasive. However, they can easily be detected using screening techniques. First, it requires a biopsy to confirm the diagnosis.

Surgery is essential to treat phyllodes tumours. Also, your doctor may suggest radiotherapy and chemotherapy alongside.

Stages of Breast Cancer

Breast cancer has five stages: from stage 0 to stage 4. Each stage is more invasive and dangerous than the previous one. 

Stage 0

At this stage, the cancer is non-invasive and dormant. However, it is present in the ducts of the breast tissue. 

Stage I

Detection of breast cancer at this stage is rare, as most of the symptoms aren’t apparent yet. This stage is divided into stage IA and stages IB. During phase IA, the tumour is 1-2 centimetres. It has not invaded the lymph tissue yet.  At stage IB, the tumour remains the same size. However, it moves closer to the lymph nodes. 

Stage II

The main symptoms of breast cancer start showing from this stage onwards. Stage II is also divided into stages IIA and IIB. At stage IIA, the tumour either increases in size but doesn’t invade the lymph nodes yet, or it remains the same size but invades the lymph nodes. Similarly, stage IIB shows the same conditions but on a larger scale. 

Stage III

During stage IIIA, cancer further increases in size and spreads to further surrounding lymph nodes. During phase IIIB, cancer invades the chest wall or skin and extends to further lymph nodes. Also, during stage IIIC, cancer has invaded the mammary nodes, collar bone, and at least ten surrounding lymph nodes. 

Stage IV

It is the most advanced stage of breast cancer. It’s also the most invasive and hard to treat. During this stage, the tumour is giant and more active. Cancer has spread to many nearby cells, tissues, and lymph nodes.

Diagnosis of Breast Cancer

Methods to diagnose breast cancer include:

1. Mammograms 

There are X-ray images of the breast tissue from multiple viewpoints during this process. Mammograms aren’t always accurate because they may miss some types of cancers. Also, denser breast tissue is harder to scan using a mammogram. By catching breast cancer early, we can hopefully reduce cancer from spreading and invasive ways of management

2. Ultrasound 

A breast ultrasound uses sound waves to generate images of the breast tissue. Your doctor can use this method to determine the breast tumour structure.

3. MRI

Breast magnetic resonance imagining is a method where there is the observation of the structure of the breast tissues. This device used radio waves and magnetic waves to create a picture. An MRI is an accurate way to study the systems and abnormalities. This way, we can also see if any other areas are affected by cancer. 

4. Biopsy 

A biopsy is a method where a small sample of the suspected tissue is collected and tested, in this case, of the breast tumour. If abnormalities are detected in the mammogram or ultrasound, a biopsy is carried out to confirm the tumour. First, there is the insertion of a special needle into the core tissue of the suspected tumour. Some methods of biopsy are needle aspiration and vacuum-assisted biopsy. 

Treatment of Breast Cancer

The treatment of breast cancer depends on the cancer stage.  The more invasive the tumour is, the more severe the treatment will be. These are the most common treatment options:

1. Chemotherapy

This method uses drugs and medication to reduce the spread and size of cancer. However, chemotherapy has a lot of side effects. The drugs may act on surrounding healthy cells, which can cause many side effects. For example, these side effects include nausea, vomiting, hair loss, fatigue, infertility, high risk of getting infections. Also, some severe side effects include heart, liver, or kidney damage. 

Furthermore, recently there have been advancements made in the field of chemotherapy. Certain drugs can be directly delivered to the cancerous cells without damaging the healthy ones. It is called targeted drug therapy. 

2. Radiotherapy

Radiotherapy uses radiation like X-rays and protons to shrink and reduce cancer in the body. Your doctor can also use it with a combination of chemotherapy or surgery. It reduces the risk of the cancer growing or returning. 

3. Immunotherapy

Cancer can weaken the immune system. Immunotherapy is a method used to activate or jumpstart your immune system into attacking the cancer cells. Certain drugs are used to boost a person’s immunity against their cancer cells. 

4. Hormone Therapy

This therapy prescribes certain drugs to block specific hormones in the body. For example, hormones like estrogen and progesterone can increase the risk of breast cancer. Therefore, securing the production and attachment of these hormones to cancer cells can be beneficial. However, hormone therapy may have side effects like blood clots and bone weakness. 

5. Surgery

There are many types of breast cancer surgeries. The type of surgery depends on the area affected by cancer and its spread. The surgery can remove a single lymph node to a double mastectomy, removing both breasts. 

Prevention of Breast Cancer

Different people have different symptoms of breast cancer.  Some people do not have any signs or symptoms at all.  Keep in mind that these symptoms can happen with other conditions that are not cancer. If you have any signs or symptoms that worry you, be sure to see your doctor right away.

Several risk factors of breast cancer, like genetic markers, can’t be slowed or stopped. However, some practices can help decrease the risk of getting breast cancer. These include:

1. Healthier Lifestyle

It is an essential factor when it comes to chronic disorders like cancer. Small changes in our daily lives can impact our bodies drastically. Regular exercise and a healthy diet can help prevent many diseases and conditions. Also, a healthy lifestyle can eliminate some risk factors like obesity and exposure to carcinogens in unhealthy food. Additionally, you should also eliminate the risk factor of alcohol consumption.

2. Regular Screening and Checkups

It is essential to check yourself for any abnormalities in your body regularly. Especially for women above 50, regular breast examinations and screening procedures are critical.

Different people have different symptoms of breast cancer.  Some people do not have any signs or symptoms at all.  Keep in mind that these symptoms can happen with other conditions that are not cancer. If you have any signs or symptoms that worry you, be sure to see your doctor right away.

There are many ways to screen yourself for any abnormalities in your breast. Some of these include self-examinations and mammograms. Furthermore, it is recommended that you discuss the best screening options for you with your physician. 

3. Breast Self examination

Adult women of all ages should perform breast self-exams at least once a month. It is recommended the self-exam be performed three to five days after a woman’s period starts to ensure breasts are not as tender or lumpy as they may be closer to the menstrual cycle. Aim for the same time every month. Early detection is fundamental. 

How to do a breast self-exam: The five steps

1: Begin by looking at your breasts in the mirror with your shoulders straight and your arms on your hips. 

Here’s what you should look for:

If you see any of the following changes, bring them to your doctor’s attention:

Dimpling, puckering, or bulging of the skin

A nipple that has changed position or an inverted nipple, redness, soreness, rash, or swelling

2: Now, raise your arms and look for the same changes.

3: While you’re at the mirror, look for any signs of fluid coming out of one or both nipples (this could be a watery, milky, or yellow fluid or blood).

4: Next, feel your breasts while lying down, using your right hand to feel your left breast and then your left hand to feel your right breast. Use a circular motion, about the size of a quarter. Cover the entire breast from top to bottom, side to side — from your collarbone to the top of your abdomen, and from your armpit to your cleavage.

Follow a pattern to be sure that you cover the whole breast. You can move your fingers up and down vertically, in rows. This up-and-down approach seems to work best for most women. For the skin and tissue beneath, use light pressure; use medium pressure for tissue in the middle of your breasts; use firm pressure for the deep tissue in the back. When you’ve reached the deep tissue, you should be able to feel down to your ribcage.

Step 5: Finally, feel your breasts while you are standing or sitting. Many women find it easy to feel their breasts when their skin is wet and tender, you can do this step in the shower. 

What to do if you find a lump?

Don’t panic if you think you feel a lump in your breast. Most women have some lumps or lumpy areas in their breasts all the time, and most breast lumps turn out to be benign (not cancer). There are a number of possible causes of non-cancerous breast lumps, including normal hormonal changes, a benign breast condition, or an injury.

Don’t hesitate to call your doctor if you’ve noticed a lump or other breast change that is new and worrisome. This is especially true for changes that last more than one full menstrual cycle or seem to get bigger or more prominent in some way. If you menstruate, you may want to wait until after your period to see if the lump or other breast change disappears on its own before calling your doctor. The best healthcare provider to call would be one who knows you and has done a breast exam on you before for example, your gynecologist, primary care doctor, or a nurse practitioner who works with your gynecologist or primary care doctor.

Prophylactic Treatments 

People at a higher risk for breast cancer may undergo treatments. In addition, doctors use some preventative treatments to reduce the risk of breast cancer. Some of these include:


It helps remove the breasts surgically. Surgeons usually perform this surgery to treat breast cancer patients. However, it may be used as a preventative measure as well. Surgery can reduce your risk of having breast cancer by almost 90%. However, it’s costly and has other health risks as well.

The Bottom Line

 Though age is a significant factor in breast cancer, awareness about it helps in early detection and treatment. Schools and colleges are taking initiatives to spread some light over this issue and enlightening the youth to take necessary precautions. Thus, it is our responsibility to know and act accordingly. Whether men or women, it is advised to go for regular checkups and screening, if in doubt.  Breast cancer is a serious issue and must be dealt with sensitively. 

About the Author

I, Dr. Poonam have 3+ years of experience in the field of Medicine. Currently serving as a Resident Physician at HealthifyMe, I have worked with premier hospitals such as Manipal Hospital, Bangalore as a Resident in Plastic and Reconstructive surgery and Rajiv Gandhi Government Hospital, Chennai as a Medical Officer. I aspire to put my knowledge in medicine to use in providing healthcare and fitness services to people and help enhance my abilities in meeting the ever-growing healthcare needs.

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