Being diagnosed with breast cancer is devastating, and processing the news and coming to accept your diagnosis will take time. When you’re finally ready to move forward, you’re faced with learning a whole new vocabulary to understand the disease.
Don’t worry: We’re here to help. Hover over the words to define and decode breast cancer terms around diagnosis, treatment, and recovery, and take back control of your health.
A doctor who tests tissue for cancer, and provides the oncologist or internist a report that includes a diagnosis.
A screening tool that uses X-rays to create images of the breast.
Stands for “ductal carcinoma in situ.” A non-invasive form of breast cancer in which the abnormal cells are in the milk ducts of the breast and haven’t spread into the adjacent tissue.
Tests that take pictures of the inside of the body to detect or monitor cancer. Mammogram uses radiation, while ultrasound uses sound waves, and MRI uses radio waves.
Stands for “human epidermal growth factor receptor.” A protein that appears on the surface of some breast cancer cells and is an important part of the pathway for cell growth and survival. Also called ErbB2.
A way of classifying tumors based on certain features of their cells.
Special proteins found within and on the surface of certain cells throughout the body, including breast cells. These proteins act like an on-off switch for a particular activity in the cell.
Any change in the DNA of a cell. Mutations can be beneficial or have no effect. However, they also can be harmful and lead to conditions like breast cancer.
Stands for “estrogen receptor.” A group of proteins found inside cells that are activated by the hormone estrogen.
A biological molecule that is used to see how well the body responds to a treatment for a disease or condition.
Small clumps of immune cells that act as filters for the lymphatic system and try to trap cancer cells.
Stands for “progesterone receptor.” A protein found inside cells activated by the steroid hormone progesterone.
A report that contains the information that describes your diagnosis.
A procedure in which a needle is used to draw a sample of breast tissue or fluid for testing. Two types of needle biopsy include fine needle aspiration (thin needle) and core biopsy (thicker needle).
Subtype of breast cancer that tests negative for all three hormone receptors and accounts for 15 to 20 percent of breast cancers.
Stands for “invasive lobular carcinoma.” This type starts in the milk- producing lobules, and spreads to surrounding breast tissue. About 10 to 15 percent of breast cancer cases are ILC.
Describes a non-cancerous tumor.
When breast cancer has spread beyond the breast to other organs in the body. Also called stage IV or advanced breast cancer.
A procedure in which cells or tissue are removed from the breast to be studied under a microscope.
Describes a cancerous tumor that is likely to spread to other parts of the body.
Stands for “inflammatory breast cancer.” A rare but aggressive type of locally advanced breast cancer. The main symptoms are swelling and redness of the breast.
A test that is used to help predict how cancer is likely to behave—whether it will spread to other parts of the body or come back—and respond to treatment.
Stands for “infiltrating ductal carcinoma.” A type of cancer that starts in the ducts, and spreads to surrounding breast tissue. It makes up 50 to 75 percent of all breast cancers.
A number from 0 to IV, that doctors use to describe the severity of the cancer and to determine a treatment plan. The higher the number, the larger the tumor, severity and/or the spread. For example, stage 0 indicates abnormal cells in the breast, while IV is cancer that has spread to other organs of the body.
BRCA1 and BRCA2 are inherited gene mutations known to increase the risk of breast cancer. They account for five to 10 percent of all breast cancers.
The use of targeted, high-energy X-rays to kill cancer cells.
A type of research study that tests how well new medical approaches work in people.
A drug that targets a certain gene's protein called HER2/neu, which is found on the surface of some cancer cells. Also called trastuzumab.
A hormone therapy used to treat both early and advanced breast cancer.
A chemotherapy drug used in cancer treatment. Also known as “red devil.”
Also called “hair loss.”A well-known side effect of chemotherapy that may occur all over your body.
A chemotherapy drug usually given in combination with other chemotherapy medicines. Used after surgery to reduce the risk of early-stage breast cancer coming back.
The use of anti-cancer drugs to treat cancer.
Natural capability to conceive offspring. Loss of fertility is a potential side effect of chemotherapy due to early menopause.
A cancer specialist who determines the course of treatment based on a pathology report.
When chemotherapy, targeted treatment, or hormone therapy is given before surgery, or primary treatment.
Treatment for hormone-receptor-positive or metastatic breast cancer that blocks, lowers, or increases hormones, and has few side effects.
Forms of treatment that are used along with standard treatments, such as acupuncture, meditation, and massage, often to lessen the side effects of treatment.
Surgical removal of the entire breast.
A procedure often done to reduce a woman’s risk of breast cancer by surgically removing her breasts even before cancer has been found. Also called a preventive mastectomy.
Adjuvant Systemic Therapy
Treatment given after or in addition to initial and main treatments, to prevent cancer recurrence and improve chance of survival.
Drug treatment that targets cancer cells in specific locations, without harming healthy ones.
Breast-conserving surgery that removes only the tumor or cancer from the breast.
A sensation characterized by cognitive problems after chemotherapy, including mental “fogginess” and trouble with concentration, memory, and multi-tasking. Also called “cancer brain.”
Treats cancer cells throughout the body, but also affects healthy cells. Techniques include immunotherapy, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy.
Lymph nodes located near the breastbone, which breast lymph vessels drain into.
Stands for “deep inferior epigastric perforator” (DIEP) flap breast reconstruction. A procedure that uses skin and fat tissue (no muscle) from the lower abdomen to form a reconstructed breast.
A modified saline implant inserted in the envelope of the skin and chest muscle. It is designed to stretch the skin until it reaches the desired size of the final implant.
Occurs when lymph fluid collects in the arm (or other areas such as the hand, fingers, chest, or back), causing it to swell (edema). This may be a post-treatment complication.
A procedure performed by a plastic surgeon to help restore the look and feel of the breast after a mastectomy.
Stands for “transverse rectus abdominis myocutaneous” (TRAM) flap breast reconstruction. A procedure that uses skin, muscle tissue, and fat tissue from the lower abdomen to reconstruct a breast.
A phase that focuses on the health and life of a person with cancer post treatment. May include issues related to follow-up treatment, late effects of treatment, and quality of life.
A breast form made of silicone gel, foam, or other materials that is fitted to your chest and placed directly on top of your skin, or in the pocket of a special bra.
When breast cancer returns, either locally in the same breast, or in other places in the body.
Describes a patient’s projected outlook for recovery, based on the type and stage of cancer, rate of cell growth, statistics, and other factors.
Latissimus Dorsi Muscle Flap
A procedure that removes a large muscle in the back, along with skin and underlying fatty tissue, in order to reconstruct a breast.
Stands for “no evidence of disease.” This indicates that the signs and symptoms of cancer are no longer present. Also called remission.
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If you or your doctor finds a lump in your breast, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have cancer. In fact, most breast lumps turn out to be noncancerous. But you’ll want to know for sure because it’s easier to treat early-stage breast cancer before it has the chance to spread. The only way to rule out breast cancer is diagnostic testing.
Diagnosing a breast lump usually begins with imaging tests that can help your doctor get a better look at the lump. Even if you already had a mammogram, your doctor may want to do another. Mammograms can sometimes identify cysts, precancerous changes in the breast, or tumors that are too small to feel. Sometimes it’s hard to tell, so your doctor may order an ultrasound or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to get a more detailed look at the lump.
After examining the images, your doctor will probably want to perform a biopsy of the lump. A biopsy is a procedure in which small tissue samples are removed from the breast for examination under a microscope. You might feel anxious at the thought, but don’t panic. According to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, 80 percent of breast biopsy results come back negative for cancer.
Your doctor will use a needle to remove tissue samples from the abnormal area. A fine needle biopsy uses a very tiny needle to get the sample. Sometimes, a slightly larger, hollow needle (core needle) is necessary. A vacuum-assisted biopsy uses a probe to remove tissue samples. Any one of these outpatient procedures can be performed under local anesthetic. Usually, a small marker is placed inside the breast at the site of the biopsy. That way, if you need surgery later on, it will be easier to find.
It doesn’t take long to perform a biopsy, but you won’t get results right away. After the procedure, the tissue sample will be sent to a pathologist, a doctor who is trained to analyze cells for signs of disease. They’ll perform a thorough examination of the cells under a microscope and create a pathology report for your doctor. It may take a few days or a few weeks to get the results, which will tell you whether or not you have cancer.
If the report says the cells are benign, you don’t have cancer. Examples of benign lumps are cysts, fibrocystic changes, and fat necrosis. You may still need to receive treatment for these causes, but you can rest easy.
If the report indicates that the tumor is malignant, that means it’s cancerous, and has the ability to spread throughout and beyond the breast.
Types of Breast Cancer
You may think that all breast cancer is the same, but there are many types. Each has specific characteristics and corresponding potential treatments.
If your pathology report indicates DCIS, you have ductal carcinoma in situ, a non-invasive, pre-cancerous condition. That means cells lining the ducts appear like cancer cells, but they haven’t spread through the duct. You’ll need some treatment because they have the potential to invade, but it’s almost always curable.
Cancer that begins in the milk ducts is called invasive or infiltrating ductal carcinoma (IDC). This is the most common type of breast cancer. When it begins in the milk glands, it’s called invasive lobular carcinoma (ILC). Both types have the ability to spread to the rest of the breast and beyond, so treatment is necessary.
Your breast pathology report will also include information about hormone receptors, which are proteins found in and on normal breast cells. The proteins tell cells what to do. Certain hormones trigger activity in the cells. Normal breast cells have estrogen and progesterone receptors, and cancer cells can also have them.
When cancer cells test positive for estrogen receptors, it means the cancer may be fueled by estrogen. This type of cancer is called ER-positive. When cancer tests positive for progesterone receptors, it’s said to be PR-positive. If you have HER2 or HER2/neu-positive breast cancer, your cells have too much of this growth-promoting protein. Each of these hormone-positive types respond to targeted hormone therapy.
If your breast cancer is negative for all these receptors, you have triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC). TNBC tends to strike younger women and African-Americans in higher numbers than other groups. It’s likely to spread faster than hormone-positive breast cancers, and has a higher rate of recurrence in the first five years. TNBC accounts for about 10 to 20 percent of breast cancers, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. There are no targeted hormone therapies.
Inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) is even more rare. According to the American Cancer Society, only 3 percent of breast cancers fall into this category. Symptoms are different than those of other breast cancers and include warm, red skin and an orange peel appearance. It can easily be mistaken for some type of infection, especially since there’s usually no lump. A delayed diagnosis can allow IBC to spread and complicate treatment.
Your pathology report will also identify the grade of the tumor. Tumors are graded on a scale of one to three, depending on how fast they’re likely to grow and spread. The higher the grade, the more aggressive the tumor. Knowing the grade will help your doctors decide on the best course of action.
By now, you’re probably anxious to know about staging. Staging tells you how advanced the cancer is—that is, how far it has spread. You usually can’t get this information from a biopsy report. In fact, your doctor may not be able to stage your cancer until after surgery. Even then, it may require additional imaging tests to confirm.
Stages of Breast Cancer
After a lumpectomy or mastectomy, your doctor will have a better idea of how far the cancer has advanced beyond the original tumor.
Lymph nodes are the part of the immune system charged with collecting fluid and filtering waste products. They’re located throughout our bodies, including around the breasts and underarms. Breast cancer is most likely to spread to the sentinel nodes of the underarm or the internal mammary lymph nodes located near the breastbone. That’s why lymph nodes are checked when you have a cancerous breast tumor.
Non-invasive cancer is stage 0. The other stages of breast cancer are:
- stage 1A: The tumor is 2 centimeters or smaller, and cancer hasn’t spread beyond the breast.
- stage 1B: Tiny groups of breast cancer cells are located in the lymph nodes, but there’s either no tumor in the breast, or it’s smaller than 2 centimeters.
- stage 2A: There’s no breast tumor, or it’s smaller than 2 centimeters and there’s cancer in lymph nodes. Or, the tumor is between 2 and 5 centimeters, but it hasn’t spread to lymph nodes.
- stage 2B: The tumor is between 2 and 5 centimeters and some breast cancer cells are in the lymph nodes. Or, the tumor is over 5 centimeters and the lymph nodes are clear.
- stage 3A: There may or may not be a breast tumor, but cancer is discovered in four to nine lymph nodes. Or, the tumor is bigger than 5 centimeters and breast cancer cells are found in lymph nodes. Or, the tumor is over 5 centimeters and there are cancer cells in lymph nodes.
- stage 3B: There’s a breast tumor, and cancer has invaded the chest wall or spread to breast skin, lymph nodes near the breastbone, or up to nine axillary lymph nodes.
- stage 3C: There may or may not be a tumor in the breast, and cancer has spread to breast skin or the chest wall in addition to lymph nodes.
- stage 4: Breast cancer is found in other organs of the body (metastasis). Breast cancer is most likely to metastasize to the bones, lungs, liver, or brain.
Sometimes, a post-surgery pathology report includes letters with stages. The meaning behind them is as follows:
- T describes the stage of the tumor.
- N indicates the lymph node involvement.
- M explains whether the cancer has metastasized.
We can learn a lot about cancer from biomarkers. Biomarkers are cellular or molecular markers that can show inherited traits or a link between something in the environment and health. A genetic mutation is a permanent change in your DNA. You can inherit genetic mutations from your parents, or they can develop spontaneously. Certain genetic mutations can increase your risk of developing breast cancer.
You’ve probably heard about BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations. Carriers of these mutated genes are more likely to develop breast cancer. If you have a family history of breast cancer, it’s worth genetic testing to find out if you carry these genes, and if you’re likely to pass them along to your children.
Oncotype DX is a genomic test. Using a sample of breast tissue, this test can help estimate how cancer will grow and spread. This is especially useful when planning treatment for estrogen-positive, early-stage breast cancer.
Once you receive a diagnosis, you’ll probably be asking your doctor about your outlook, the likely course of your disease. To arrive at a prognosis, your doctor will take into account the type and stage of breast cancer, along with general statistics. Keep in mind that it’s only a wide-range estimate. Your personal prognosis depends on many specific factors, including your general health and treatment choices.
If you’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer, you’ll be referred to a breast surgeon or oncologist to determine your treatment options. An oncologist is a doctor who specializes in treating cancer. Based on the information in your pathology report, your doctor will talk to you about which treatments might be best for you. Besides the type of cancer you have, they’ll take your age and overall health into consideration.
There are many treatments for breast cancer. In most cases, your oncologist will recommend a combination of therapies.
Systemic treatment is something that treats the body as a whole. Chemotherapy is a systemic treatment because it affects cells throughout the whole body. Powerful chemotherapy drugs can kill cancer cells, shrink tumors, and prevent cancer from spreading. Your oncologist will determine how many rounds of treatment you should have. When chemotherapy is used to try to shrink the tumor before surgery, it’s called neoadjuvant therapy.
A common breast cancer drug is Adriamycin, the brand name for doxorubicin. This powerful cancer killer is delivered intravenously under a doctor’s care. Its bright red color has earned it the nickname, “the red devil.” It’s used for treatment of many types of cancer, including all types of breast cancer. Taxol, the brand name for paclitaxel, is often used for aggressive or advanced breast cancer. These are just a couple of the many drugs available.
Chemotherapy drugs are often combined. Your doctor may recommend several rounds of a drug, then switch you to another. As you progress through treatment, it’s very likely that some adjustments will be made based on side effects and how well your body responds.
Chemotherapy has a lot of potential side effects, but everyone is different. There’s no way to predict how your body will react until you’re in treatment. You’ve probably heard someone use the term “chemo brain” or “chemo fog.” It describes an overall foggy feeling caused by the drugs. Chemo treatment may cause you problems with your memory and concentration, making everyday tasks difficult. The extent of chemo brain—and how long it lasts—is different for everyone.
A bald head is probably one of the most visible signs of someone in chemotherapy. Because chemo drugs kill fast-growing cells, alopecia (hair loss) can occur. It’s only temporary, though. Your hair will grow back when chemotherapy ends.
If you’re in your childbearing years, chemotherapy can affect your fertility. If you have a type of hormone-positive breast cancer, hormone-blocking therapy you receive may interfere with your ability to conceive. Chemo can also trigger early menopause.
Targeted therapies are designed to treat specific types of breast cancer. For example, hormone-positive breast cancers can be treated with medications that lower or block those hormones. Herceptin, the brand name for trastuzumab, is effective in treating HER-2-positive breast cancer. Tamoxifen is an oral chemotherapy used to lower the risk of spreading or recurring ER-positive breast cancer.
Radiation therapy is another type of targeted treatment. High-energy rays are aimed at a specific area of the chest. Before getting radiation treatment, you’ll need to get “marked.” That is, your doctor will use precise measurements to strategically tattoo tiny, permanent marks on your chest. They’ll be used to help position your treatment.
When a surgeon removes a lump, but spares the rest of the breast, it’s called a lumpectomy. Lumpectomy is a great option for women who have a small tumor and no evidence that the cancer has spread.
A mastectomy is surgical removal of the breast. It’s called a partial mastectomy when only the tumor and some surrounding tissue are removed. Removing the entire breast is called a simple or total mastectomy. When lymph nodes are also removed, it’s called a modified radical mastectomy. A radical mastectomy also involves removal of muscles from the chest wall.
A mastectomy performed as a preventive measure is called a prophylactic mastectomy. You might opt to do this if you carry a genetic predisposition to aggressive breast cancer. Some people having a mastectomy for breast cancer on one side decide to remove both breasts. Ask your doctor to go over all the pros and cons of a prophylactic mastectomy with you if you’re considering this procedure.
Complementary therapies are those used in addition to standard medical treatment. Many therapies fall into this category, including acupuncture, massage, and herbal treatments. It’s important to choose a qualified practitioner and let your oncologist know what other treatments you’re receiving. These therapies are called alternative therapy when they’re used in place of standard medical treatment.
Your oncologist may talk to you about research studies called clinical trials. They’re a way for researchers to test new treatments and compare them to other treatments, or to no treatment at all. If you’re in a clinical trial, you won’t necessarily know what medication you’re taking. Clinical trials generally have very strict criteria on who can participate and how they’re carried out. They’re often offered to those with advanced cancer who aren’t benefitting from current treatment.
Cancer and cancer treatment are hard on the body. It will take time to heal and feel physically strong again. Much will depend on the treatment you received and how long it took. Keep in mind that the recovery process is different for everyone. Don’t compare your recovery time with anybody else’s, and don’t get discouraged if it’s slow going. Respect your body’s unique timetable.
In the weeks and months that follow chemotherapy, your hair will begin to regrow. Your taste buds will return to normal, and your appetite will start to improve. Some side effects, like chemo brain, may continue indefinitely. If you had chemotherapy, radiation, or both, you probably experienced extreme fatigue. That won’t change overnight. Your body is using an enormous amount of energy in its quest to make repairs and heal.
Adjuvant systemic therapy is treatment started after the initial treatment is over. It’s used to prevent recurrence and increase the chances for long-term survival. This will probably include ongoing hormone treatment (oral therapy) for hormone-positive breast cancers, which will continue to affect your body.
It’s impossible to estimate recovery time after a mastectomy. Pain and discomfort should ease within a few weeks to a few months if you don’t have reconstructive surgery or complications. Instead of reconstruction, some women prefer a prosthesis. Prosthetic breasts are made of silicone, gels, or other materials, and they’re weighted for balance. They can fit directly on your skin, or inside the fitted pocket of a mastectomy bra.
You’ll need additional procedures over a longer period of time if you choose reconstruction.
Usually, an inflatable implant called a tissue expander is inserted under the skin and muscle following removal of the breast. A saltwater solution is injected over several months, causing the skin to slowly expand. When the skin reaches the correct size, the expander can be removed in preparation for reconstruction.
Some types of reconstruction include:
- DIEP flap: The deep inferior epigastric artery perforator (DIEP) flap is a breast reconstruction technique. Skin and tissue are cut from the abdomen and reattached to the chest to create a new breast mound.
- TRAM flap: In a transverse rectus abdominis myocutaneous (TRAM) flap procedure, a flap of skin, fat, and muscle from the abdomen remains attached to its blood supply. The flap is pushed underneath the skin and up into the chest. The new mound may or may not need an additional implant.
- latissimus dorsi muscle flap: On your back and below your shoulder is a muscle called the latissimus dorsi. In this reconstructive procedure, the flap of skin, fat, muscle, and blood vessels can be moved under the skin to your chest to create a new breast mound. The blood vessels remain attached to their original position.
If you had lymph nodes removed, you’re at increased risk of lymphedema, a condition in which the lymphatic system becomes blocked and causes swelling. Notify your doctor at the first sign of swelling. There’s no cure for lymphedema, but it can be effectively managed.
You’ll need to keep regular appointments with your team of cancer doctors even if there’s no evidence of disease (NED). This will probably involve routine blood work and examination of the breast area. Be sure to tell your doctor about any concerns or unexplained symptoms. They’ll be on the alert for signs of recurrence.
You’re considered a “survivor” as soon as you’re diagnosed with breast cancer. Surviving breast cancer involves more than simply reaching a state of remission. You may start out longing for a return to “normal,” but with all the physical and emotional issues that come about, you may find yourself redefining what that means, on your own terms.
Symbolism of the Cherry Blossom Design:
Every spring, cherry blossom trees bloom into magnificent clouds of pink petals, and then they’re done. Because of their brief flowering season, the trees have come to symbolize both the beauty and fragility of life. People gather together at festivals in Japan and other parts of the world where the tree grows, including the United States, to admire its beauty—no matter how ephemeral—and celebrate everything it represents.