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Breast Cancer: Medical Information on Causes, Diagnosis, Symptoms and Treatment

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Quick Answers about Breast Cancer

  • Breast Cancer Overview
  • Classifying Breast Cancer
  • The Spread and Symptoms of Breast Cancer
  • Metastatic Breast Cancer
  • Diagnosing Breast Cancer
  • Treating Breast Cancer

Breast Cancer

Breast Cancer Overview

Breast cancer develops when breast cells begin to grow abnormally and out of control that usually results in the formation of the tumor that can be viewed in an x-ray or detected as a lump. Malignant tumor cells can invade (spread into) surrounding tissue or metastasize to distant body parts and organs.

Even though most breast cancer cases involve women, men can develop the disease too. More than 300,000 new invasive and non-invasive cases of breast cancer will likely be diagnosed in men and women in the United States in 2016, including almost 2500 new cases in men. Fortunately, the incident rate involving breast cancer nationwide has decreased over the last two decades, due in part to the reduced use of HRT (hormone replacement therapy).

Breast cancer and tumors can develop in any part of the breast from the milk ducts (ductal cancer) to the breast milk-producing glands (lobular cancer) and other breast tissue (lymphoma and sarcoma). Most breast lumps are benign, meaning they are not cancerous or malignant. While these tumors are considered abnormal growths, they lack the ability to spread to other areas of the body and become life-threatening.

However, there are breast lumps that have the potential of increasing the risk of developing breast cancer. Because of that, it is crucial that the individual is routinely checked and evaluated by their primary health care provider to determine if there are any potential risks of future cancer.

Classifying Breast Cancer

There are two specific common types of breast cancer that include:

  • Invasive Lobular Carcinoma – The abnormal cancerous cells can easily spread from the breasts into surrounding tissue and eventually to other parts and organs of the body.
  • Invasive Ductal Carcinoma – The abnormal cancerous cells can easily spread from the breast ducts to surrounding breast tissue and metastasize (spread) to other body parts and organs.

The Signs and Symptoms of Breast Cancer

When breast cancer reaches the lymph or blood system, it can be carried, transported or spread to other body parts and vital organs. Lymph fluid is carried through lymph vessels and connected lymph nodes. Typically, the doctor will first examine the lymph nodes to determine if the cancer cells have spread or metastasized. If breast cancer cells are detected in the lymph node there is increasing possibility that the disease has spread to other organs too.

There are various symptoms associated with breast cancer including those that can only be felt by the individual including pain and headaches. Other indicators can involve swelling, rash, lumps or thickening breast tissue. The most notable signs of the presence of breast cancer include:

  • A lump in breast tissue
  • A rash on or around the nipple
  • Pain in the breast or armpit not associated with normal menstrual cycles
  • Thickened breast tissue
  • Lump or swelling in the armpit
  • A noticeable change in the breast’s shape or size
  • A change in the nipple’s appearance including becoming inverted or sunken
  • Discharge from the nipple that may or may not contain blood
  • Skin redness or pitting on the breast

Breast Cancer Risk Factors and Causes

Scientists and researchers have yet to find a definitive cause of breast cancer and breast tumors. Studies indicate that approximately one out of every eight women nationwide (12 percent) will develop breast cancer in their lifetime. Additionally, there are specific risk factors that can potentially increase the chance of developing the disease. These risk factors for women include:

  • Reproductive History
  • Genetics – A family history of breast cancer
  • Environmental Conditions
  • Lifestyle Choices including high alcohol consumption
  • Exposure to Excess Estrogen – Women who begin ovulating earlier or who experience menopause later in life have a greater potential developing breast cancer
  • Obesity
  • Taller than average height
  • Hormone Replacement Therapy
  • Exposure to radiation including CT scans and x-rays
  • Certain occupations, especially those where the worker is exposed to possible carcinogens

There are numerous things changes in lifestyle habits that minimize the potential developing life-threatening breast cancer such as eating healthier, stopping smoking (cessation) and consuming less alcohol that has been proven to damage DNA and cells an increase breast-cancer risks.

Metastatic Breast Cancer

Invasive breast cancer is the most common form of the disease where abnormal cells from lobules or milk ducts spread to nearby breast tissue. Eventually, the invasive disease can spread cancer cells to other areas of the body through the immune system or bloodstream. The cancer cells can easily spread (metastasize) to the liver, brain, bones and lungs. Even when the new tumors are discovered in another area or organ, they are still classified as breast cancer.

Diagnosing Breast Cancer

During a breast examination, the physician will check both breasts and surrounding lymph nodes, especially in the armpit to see if any lumps or abnormalities can be detected. All the tests and procedures that are effective at diagnosing breast cancer and tumors include:

  • Mammogram – The doctor will likely recommend the patient have an x-ray of both breasts (mammogram) to screen for cancer. If the doctor detects an abnormality found on the mammogram, they will likely recommend the patient undergo a diagnostic mammogram for further evaluation.
  • Breast Ultrasound – Using sound waves (ultrasound) is an easy way to produce an image of the breast and obtain a visual representation of a newly forming breast lump to determine if it is fluid-filled or solid mass.
  • Biopsy – The doctor may obtain a biopsy, or sample, of breast cells to be and analyzed in a laboratory to determine if the cells are abnormal or cancerous. In addition, the biopsy can reveal the aggressive nature of the cancer can provide inside on whether the cancer has hormone receptors that have the potential of influencing treatment options.
  • Magnetic Resident Imaging – Obtaining an MRI using magnetic radio waves is an easy solution for creating a picture of the breast’s interior structure. In some cases, the doctor will have dye injected into the patient’s veins to obtain a more comprehensive image of breast tissue.

Treating Breast Cancer

Before the doctor can recommend an effective treatment, they must grade, stage, and measure the cancerous area while considering the patient’s overall health, age and preferences. More than one treatment, procedure medication might be used in treating the disease which could involve:

  • Surgery – Surgical procedures like a lumpectomy (breast cancer removal), mastectomy (breast removal), sentinel node biopsy (removing some lymph nodes), or axillary lymph node dissection.
  • Chemotherapy – This procedure uses medication to kill cancer cells and minimize the potential of spreading or returning cancer to other areas of the body. However, chemotherapy has specific side effects that could involve fatigue, vomiting, nausea, hair loss and infection.
  • Radiation – Using high-powered energy beams, radiation therapy can destroy cancer cells. Another type of radiation (brachytherapy) involves inserting radioactive material into the body.
  • Hormone Therapy – Also referred to as hormone-blocking therapy, this treatment is often used in addition to surgeries and other treatments to minimize the potential of cancer returning.

Common drugs associated with treating breast cancer include:

  • Herceptin (trastuzumab)
  • Perjeta (pertuzumab)
  • Kadcula (ado-trastuzumab)
  • Tykerb (lapatinib)
  • Ibrance (palbociclib)
  • Afinitor (everolimus)

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