When you are said to have breast cancer, it means that a malignant tumor has started in the cells of your breast. Malignant tumors are groups of cancer cells with the ability to invade the surrounding tissues, or to spread out into other areas of your body. It is mostly women who suffer from breast cancer, but men are susceptible to it as well.
The following information only refers to breast cancer that happen in women.
A Normal Breast:
Understanding what is breast cancer takes some basic knowledge concerning the normal structure of breasts. A female breast is composed of lobules, which are milk-producing glands and ducts which carry milk to the woman’s nipple. They are also made from the stroma (which is the fatty tissue as well as the connective tissue that surrounds the blood vessels), and the lymphatic vessels, lobules, and ducts. Most breast cancers start in the cells lining the ducts. Sometimes it begins with cells that line certain tissues as well as in the lobules.
The lymph nodes are a small bean-shaped collection of immune system cells. These are crucial for fighting off infections. They are connected by the lymphatic vessels. A lymphatic vessel is a small vein; only they carry a fluid known as ‘lymph’ rather than blood. Lymph is comprised of waste products and tissue fluids as well as healthy immune system cells. Breast cancer cells may enter into the lymphatic vessels and start to grow there in the lymph nodes.
Most of the lymphatic vessels found in the breast will connect to the lymph nodes just under the arm. These are known as ‘auxiliary nodes’. Other lymphatic vessels will connect to the lymph nodes residing inside the chest and are known as ‘internal mammary nodes’. Others are located above or below your collarbone and are called ‘supraclavicular’ or sometimes ‘infraclavicular’ nodes.
Whenever cancer cells can spread to your lymph nodes, you have a much higher risk of those cells already being in your bloodstream and spreading out into other parts of your body. The more of these lymph nodes you have with cancer cells, the more likely you are to have cancer in other organs too. This is the reason finding cancer in even one or more nodes affects the plan for treatment. Not all women who have cancer cells in the lymph nodes will develop metastases. Some women who have absolutely no cancer cells living in their lymph nodes may develop metastases down the road.
Benign Breast Lumps:
Many breast lumps that are found will not be cancerous. They are referred to as being ‘benign’. There are still times when it is necessary to take a biopsy to prove whether or not the cells are cancerous.
Fibrosis & Cysts:
Most lumps that are found turn out to be the result of fibrosis or cysts. These are benign changes within the breast tissue, and lots of women experience them at some point in their lives. These changes are commonly referred to as ‘fibrocystic changes’. They used to be labeled as ‘fibrocystic disease’.
The condition known as fibrosis is a formation of the scar-like tissue. The cysts are fluid-filled sacs. It is usually a doctor who makes this diagnosis based on certain symptoms like swelling, pain or tenderness, or lumps in the breast. The symptoms tend to get worse as the woman approaches her menstrual cycle. She may find her breasts to be lumpy or find a cloudy discharge coming from her nipple.
Fibroadenomas & Intraductal Papillomas:
A benign breast tumor like fibroadenomas or like intraductal papillomas most often gets labeled as being abnormal growths. However, they are not necessarily cancerous and don’t spread outside of the breast to other organs. These are not deemed as being ‘life threatening’.
There are still some benign breast conditions that may prove to be important, because women who have them are at a higher risk of developing breast cancer. To get more information about this and what is breast cancer, do some research on non-cancerous breast conditions.