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You are here: Home » eGM Resources » Health Information & Resources Portal|Home » Breast Cancer

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Breast Cancer
breast anatomy

The parts of the breast and the lymph nodes and lymph vessels near the breast. Image courtesy of the National Cancer Institute.

The Breasts

The breasts sit on the chest muscles that cover the ribs. Each breast is made of 15 to 20 lobes. Lobes contain many smaller lobules. Lobules contain groups of tiny glands that can produce milk. Milk flows from the lobules through thin tubes called ducts to the nipple. The nipple is in the center of a dark area of skin called the areola. Fat fills the spaces between the lobules and ducts.

The breasts also contain lymph vessels. These vessels lead to small, round organs called lymph nodes. Groups of lymph nodes are near the breast in the axilla (underarm), above the collarbone, in the chest behind the breastbone, and in many other parts of the body. The lymph nodes trap bacteria, cancer cells, or other harmful substances.

Understanding Cancer

Cancer begins in cells, the building blocks that make up tissues. Tissues make up the organs of the body. Normally, cells grow and divide to form new cells as the body needs them. When cells grow old, they die, and new cells take their place. Sometimes, this orderly process goes wrong. New cells form when the body does not need them, and old cells do not die when they should. These extra cells can form a mass of tissue called a growth or tumor.

Malignant vs. Benign Tumors

Benign Tumors

Benign tumors are not cancer.

  • Benign tumors are rarely life-threatening.
  • Generally, benign tumors can be removed. They usually do not grow back.
  • Cells from benign tumors do not invade the tissues around them.
  • Cells from benign tumors do not spread to other parts of the body.

Malignant Tumors

Malignant tumors are cancer.

breast cancer cell

Electron micrograph of a single cell of breast cancer. Image courtesy of NCI.

  • Malignant tumors are generally more serious than benign tumors. They may be life-threatening.
  • Malignant tumors often can be removed. But sometimes they grow back.
  • Cells from malignant tumors can invade and damage nearby tissues and organs.
  • Cells from malignant tumors can spread (metastasize) to other parts of the body. Cancer cells spread by breaking away from the original (primary) tumor and entering the bloodstream or lymphatic system. The cells invade other organs and form new tumors that damage these organs. The spread of cancer is called metastasis.

When breast cancer cells spread, the cancer cells are often found in lymph nodes near the breast. Also, breast cancer can spread to almost any other part of the body. The most common are the bones, liver, lungs, and brain. The new tumor has the same kind of abnormal cells and the same name as the primary tumor. For example, if breast cancer spreads to the bones, the cancer cells in the bones are actually breast cancer cells. The disease is metastatic breast cancer, not bone cancer. For that reason, it is treated as breast cancer, not bone cancer. Doctors call the new tumor "distant" or metastatic disease.

breast exam

Breast exam. Image courtesy of VA New England Healthcare System.

Screening

Screening for breast cancer before there are symptoms can be important. Screening can help doctors find and treat cancer early. Treatment is more likely to work well when cancer is found early. Your doctor may suggest the following screening tests for breast cancer:

  • Screening mammogram » X-rays of the breasts taken to check for breast cancer in the absence of signs or symptoms (more)
  • Clinical breast exam » An exam of the breast performed by a health care provider to check for lumps or other changes (more)
  • Breast self-exam » An exam by a woman of her breasts to check for lumps or other changes (more)

Symptoms

Common symptoms of breast cancer include:

  • A change in how the breast or nipple feels
    • A lump or thickening in or near the breast or in the underarm area
    • Nipple tenderness
  • A change in how the breast or nipple looks
    • A change in the size or shape of the breast
    • A nipple turned inward into the breast
    • The skin of the breast, areola, or nipple may be scaly, red, or swollen. It may have ridges or pitting so that it looks like the skin of an orange
  • Nipple discharge (fluid)

Early breast cancer usually does not cause pain. Still, a woman should see her health care provider about breast pain or any other symptom that does not go away. Most often, these symptoms are not due to cancer. Other health problems may also cause them. Any woman with these symptoms should tell her doctor so that problems can be diagnosed and treated as early as possible.

Treatment Methods

Women with breast cancer have many treatment options. These include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, hormone therapy, and biological therapy. These options are described below. Many women receive more than one type of treatment. The choice of treatment depends mainly on the stage of the disease. Treatment options by stage are described below.

Your doctor can describe your treatment choices and the expected results. You may want to know how treatment may change your normal activities. You may want to know how you will look during and after treatment. You and your doctor can work together to develop a treatment plan that reflects your medical needs and personal values.

Cancer treatment is either local therapy or systemic therapy:

Pink ribbon - breast cancer awareness

Local Therapy

Surgery and radiation therapy are local treatments. They remove or destroy cancer in the breast. When breast cancer has spread to other parts of the body, local therapy may be used to control the disease in those specific areas.

Systemic Therapy

Chemotherapy, hormone therapy, and biological therapy are systemic treatments. They enter the bloodstream and destroy or control cancer throughout the body. Some women with breast cancer have systemic therapy to shrink the tumor before surgery or radiation. Others have systemic therapy after surgery and/or radiation to prevent the cancer from coming back. Systemic treatments also are used for cancer that has spread.

Because cancer treatments often damage healthy cells and tissues, side effects are common. Side effects depend mainly on the type and extent of the treatment. Side effects may not be the same for each woman, and they may change from one treatment session to the next.

Source: National Cancer Institute


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