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This information is produced and provided by the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The information in this topic may have changed since it was written. For the most current information, contact the National Cancer Institute via the Internet web site at http://cancer.gov or call 1-800-4-CANCER.
Breast cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the breast.
The breast is made up of lobes and ducts. Each breast has 15 to 20 sections called lobes. Each lobe has many smaller sections called lobules. Lobules end in dozens of tiny bulbs that can make milk. The lobes, lobules, and bulbs are linked by thin tubes called ducts. Anatomy of the female breast. The nipple and areola are shown on the outside of the breast. The lymph nodes, lobes, lobules, ducts, and other parts of the inside of the breast are also shown.
Each breast also has blood vessels and lymph vessels. The lymph vessels carry an almost colorless fluid called lymph. Lymph vessels carry lymph between lymph nodes. Lymph nodes are small bean-shaped structures that are found throughout the body. They filter substances in lymph and help fight infection and disease. Clusters of lymph nodes are found near the breast in the axilla (under the arm), above the collarbone, and in the chest.
Sometimes breast cancer occurs in women who are pregnant or have just given birth.
Breast cancer occurs about once in every 3,000 pregnancies. It occurs most often between the ages of 32 and 38.
Signs of breast cancer include a lump or change in the breast.
These and other signs may be caused by breast cancer or by other conditions. Check with your doctor if you have any of the following:
It may be difficult to detect (find) breast cancer early in pregnant or nursing women.
The breasts usually get larger, tender, or lumpy in women who are pregnant, nursing, or have just given birth. This occurs because of normal hormone changes that take place during pregnancy. These changes can make small lumps difficult to detect. The breasts may also become denser. It is more difficult to detect breast cancer in women with dense breasts using mammography. Because these breast changes can delay diagnosis , breast cancer is often found at a later stage in these women.
Breast exams should be part of prenatal and postnatal care.
To detect breast cancer, pregnant and nursing women should examine their breasts themselves. Women should also receive clinical breast exams during their regular prenatal and postnatal check-ups. Talk to your doctor if you notice any changes in your breasts that you do not expect or that worry you.
Tests that examine the breasts are used to detect (find) and diagnose breast cancer.
The following tests and procedures may be used:
There are four types of breast biopsies:
If cancer is found, tests are done to study the cancer cells.
Decisions about the best treatment are based on the results of these tests and the age of the unborn baby. The tests give information about:
Tests may include the following:
Certain factors affect prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options.
The prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options depend on the following:
After breast cancer has been diagnosed, tests are done to find out if cancer cells have spread within the breast or to other parts of the body.
The process used to find out if the cancer has spread within the breast or to other parts of the body is called staging. The information gathered from the staging process determines the stage of the disease. It is important to know the stage in order to plan treatment.
Some procedures may expose the unborn baby to harmful radiation or dyes. These procedures are done only if absolutely necessary. Certain actions can be taken to expose the unborn baby to as little radiation as possible, such as the use of a lead-lined shield to cover the abdomen.
The following tests and procedures may be used to stage breast cancer during pregnancy:
There are three ways that cancer spreads in the body.
Cancer can spread through tissue, the lymph system, and the blood:
Cancer may spread from where it began to other parts of the body.
When cancer spreads to another part of the body, it is called metastasis. Cancer cells break away from where they began (the primary tumor) and travel through the lymph system or blood.
The metastatic tumor is the same type of cancer as the primary tumor. For example, if breast cancer spreads to the bone, the cancer cells in the bone are actually breast cancer cells. The disease is metastatic breast cancer, not bone cancer.
The following stages are used for breast cancer:
This section describes the stages of breast cancer. The breast cancer stage is based on the results of testing that is done on the tumor and lymph nodes removed during surgery and other tests.
Stage 0 (carcinoma in situ)
There are 3 types of breast carcinoma in situ:
Stage I breast cancer. In stage IA, the tumor is 2 centimeters or smaller and has not spread outside the breast. In stage IB, no tumor is found in the breast or the tumor is 2 centimeters or smaller. Small clusters of cancer cells (larger than 0.2 millimeter but not larger than 2 millimeters) are found in the lymph nodes.
In stage I, cancer has formed. Stage I is divided into stages IA and IB.
Stage II is divided into stages IIA and IIB.
Stage IIIA breast cancer. No tumor is found in the breast or the tumor may be any size and cancer is found in 4 to 9 axillary lymph nodes or lymph nodes near the breastbone (left panel); OR the tumor is larger than 5 centimeters and small clusters of cancer cells (larger than 0.2 millimeter but not larger than 2 millimeters) are found in the lymph nodes (middle panel); OR the tumor is larger than 5 centimeters and cancer is found in 1 to 3 axillary lymph nodes or lymph nodes near the breastbone (right panel).
In stage IIIA:
Stage IIIB breast cancer. The tumor may be any size and cancer has spread to the chest wall and/or to the skin of the breast and caused swelling or an ulcer. Cancer may have spread to up to 9 axillary lymph nodes or the lymph nodes near the breastbone. Cancer that has spread to the skin of the breast may be inflammatory breast cancer.
In stage IIIB, the tumor may be any size and cancer has spread to the chest wall and/or to the skin of the breast and caused swelling or an ulcer. Also, cancer may have spread to:
Cancer that has spread to the skin of the breast may also be inflammatory breast cancer. See the section on Inflammatory Breast Cancer for more information.
Stage IIIC breast cancer. No tumor is found in the breast or the tumor may be any size and may have spread to the chest wall and/or to the skin of the breast and caused swelling or an ulcer. Also, cancer has spread to 10 or more axillary lymph nodes (left panel); OR to lymph nodes above or below the collarbone (middle panel); OR to axillary lymph nodes and lymph nodes near the breastbone (right panel). Cancer that has spread to the skin of the breast may be inflammatory breast cancer.
In stage IIIC, no tumor is found in the breast or the tumor may be any size. Cancer may have spread to the skin of the breast and caused swelling or an ulcer and/or has spread to the chest wall. Also, cancer has spread to:
For treatment, stage IIIC breast cancer is divided into operable and inoperable stage IIIC.
Stage IV breast cancer. The cancer has spread to other parts of the body, most often the bones, lungs, liver, or brain.
In stage IV, cancer has spread to other organs of the body, most often the bones, lungs, liver, or brain.
In inflammatory breast cancer, cancer has spread to the skin of the breast and the breast looks red and swollen and feels warm. The redness and warmth occur because the cancer cells block the lymph vessels in the skin. The skin of the breast may also show the dimpled appearance called peau d'orange (like the skin of an orange). There may not be any lumps in the breast that can be felt. Inflammatory breast cancer may be stage IIIB, stage IIIC, or stage IV.
Inflammatory breast cancer of the left breast showing peau d'orange and inverted nipple.
Treatment options for pregnant women depend on the stage of the disease and the age of the unborn baby.
Three types of standard treatment are used:
Most pregnant women with breast cancer have surgery to remove the breast. Some of the lymph nodes under the arm may be removed and checked under a microscope for signs of cancer.
Types of surgery to remove the cancer include:
Even if the doctor removes all of the cancer that can be seen at the time of surgery, the patient may be given radiation therapy or chemotherapy after surgery to try to kill any cancer cells that may be left. For pregnant women with early-stage breast cancer, radiation therapy and hormone therapy are given after the baby is born. Treatment given after surgery, to lower the risk that the cancer will come back, is called adjuvant therapy.
Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses high-energy x-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells. There are two types of radiation therapy. External radiation therapy uses a machine outside the body to send radiation toward the cancer. Internal radiation therapy uses a radioactive substance sealed in needles, seeds, wires, or catheters that are placed directly into or near the cancer. The way the radiation therapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated.
Radiation therapy is not given to pregnant women with early stage (stage I or II) breast cancer because it can harm the unborn baby. For women with late stage (stage III or IV) breast cancer, radiation therapy is not given during the first 3 months of pregnancy and is delayed until after the baby is born, if possible.
Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping the cells from dividing. When chemotherapy is taken by mouth or injected into a vein or muscle, the drugs enter the bloodstream and can reach cancer cells throughout the body (systemic chemotherapy). When chemotherapy is placed directly into the cerebrospinal fluid, an organ, or a body cavity such as the abdomen, the drugs mainly affect cancer cells in those areas (regional chemotherapy). The way the chemotherapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated.
Chemotherapy is usually not given during the first 3 months of pregnancy. Chemotherapy given after this time does not usually harm the unborn baby but may cause early labor and low birth weight.
See Drugs Approved for Breast Cancer for more information.
Ending the pregnancy does not seem to improve the mother's chance of survival.
Because ending the pregnancy is not likely to improve the mother's chance of survival, it is not usually a treatment option.
Early Stage Breast Cancer (Stage I and Stage II)
Treatment of early-stage breast cancer (stage I and stage II) may include the following:
Late Stage Breast Cancer (Stage III and Stage IV)
Treatment of late-stage breast cancer (stage III and stage IV) may include the following:
Radiation therapy and chemotherapy should not be given during the first 3 months of pregnancy.
Lactation (breast milk production) and breast-feeding should be stopped if surgery or chemotherapy is planned.
If surgery is planned, breast-feeding should be stopped to reduce blood flow in the breasts and make them smaller. Breast-feeding should also be stopped if chemotherapy is planned. Many anticancer drugs, especially cyclophosphamide and methotrexate, may occur in high levels in breast milk and may harm the nursing baby. Women receiving chemotherapy should not breast-feed. Stopping lactation does not improve the mother's prognosis.
Breast cancer does not appear to harm the unborn baby.
Breast cancer cells do not seem to pass from the mother to the unborn baby.
Pregnancy does not seem to affect the survival of women who have had breast cancer in the past.
For women who have had breast cancer, pregnancy does not seem to affect their survival. However, some doctors recommend that a woman wait 2 years after treatment for breast cancer before trying to have a baby, so that any early return of the cancer would be detected. This may affect a woman's decision to become pregnant. The unborn baby does not seem to be affected if the mother has had breast cancer.
For more information from the National Cancer Institute about breast cancer and pregnancy, see the following:
For general cancer information and other resources from the National Cancer Institute, see the following:
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Editorial changes were made to this summary.
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National Cancer Institute: PDQ® Breast Cancer Treatment and Pregnancy. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Date last modified <MM/DD/YYYY>. Available at: http://www.cancer.gov/types/breast/patient/pregnancy-breast-treatment-pdq. Accessed <MM/DD/YYYY>.
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Last Revised: 2015-10-21
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