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Breast Cancer


Overview :

Breast cancer arises in the milk-producing glands of the breast tissue. Groups of glands in normal breast tissue are called lobules. The products of these glands are secreted into a ductal system that leads to the nipple. Depending on where in the glandular or ductal unit of the breast the cancer arises, it will develop certain characteristics that are used to sub-classify breast cancer into types. The pathologist will denote the subtype at the time of evaluation with the microscope. Ductal carcinoma begins in the ducts, lobular carcinoma has a pattern involving the lobules or glands. The more important classification is related to the evaluated tumor's capability to invade, as this characteristic defines the disease as a true cancer. The stage before invasive cancer is called in situ, meaning that the early malignancy has not yet become capable of invasion. Thus, ductal carcinoma in situ is considered a minimal breast cancer.

How breast cancer spreads

The primary tumor begins in the breast itself but once it becomes invasive, it may progress beyond the breast to the regional lymph nodes or travel (metastasize) to other organ systems in the body and become systemic in nature. Lymph is the clear, protein-rich fluid that bathes the cells throughout the body. Lymph will work its way back to the bloodstream via small channels known as lymphatics. Along the way, the lymph is filtered through cellular stations known as nodes, thus they are called lymph nodes. Nearly all organs in the body have a primary lymph node group filtering fluid that comes from that organ. In the breast, the primary lymph nodes are under the armpit, or axilla. Classically, the primary tumor begins in the breast and the first place to which it is likely to spread is the regional lymph nodes. Cancer, as it invades in its place of origin, may also work its way into blood vessels. If cancer gets into the blood vessels, the blood vessels provide yet another route for the cancer to spread to other organs of the body.

Breast cancer follows this classic progression though it often becomes systemic or widespread early in the course of the disease. By the time one can feel a lump in the breast it is often 0.4 inches, or one centimeter, in size and contains roughly a million cells. It is estimated that a tumor of this size may take one to five years to develop. During that time, the cancer may metastasize, or spread by lymphatics or blood to areas elsewhere in the body.

When primary breast cancer spreads, it may first go to the axillary nodes. If this occurs, regional metastasis exists. If it proceeds elsewhere either by lymphatic or blood-borne spread, the patient develops systemic metastasis that may involve a number of other organs in the body. Favorite sites of systemic involvement for breast cancer are the lung, bones, liver, and the skin and soft tissue. As it turns out, the presence of, and the actual number of, regional lymph nodes containing cancer remains the single best indicator of whether or not the cancer has become widely metastatic. Because tests to discover metastasis in other organs may not be sensitive enough to reveal minute deposits, the evaluation of the axilla for regional metastasis becomes very important in making treatment decisions for this disease.

If breast cancer spreads to other major organs of the body, its presence will compromise the function of those organs. Death is the result of extreme compromise of vital organ function.

Demographics

Every woman is at risk for breast cancer. If she lives to be 85, there is a one out of nine chance that she will develop the condition sometime during her life. As a woman ages, her risk of developing breast cancer rises dramatically regardless of her family history. The breast cancer risk of a 25-year-old woman is only one out of 19,608; by age 45, it is one in 93. In fact, less than 5% of cases are discovered before age 35 and the majority of all breast cancers are found in women over age 50.




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