What is breast cancer?

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Courtesy Susan G. Komen for the Cure

Every day, cells in your body divide, grow and die. Most of the time cells divide and grow in an orderly manner. But sometimes cells grow out of control. This kind of growth of cells forms a mass or lump called a tumor. Tumors are either benign or malignant.

Benign tumors are not cancerous. When these tumors are removed, they typically do not reappear. The cells of a benign tumor do not invade nearby tissue or spread to other parts of the body.

Malignant tumors are made of abnormal cells and are cancerous. Malignant tumor cells can invade nearby tissue and spread to other parts of the body. A malignant tumor that develops in the breast is called breast cancer.

To grow, malignant breast tumors need to be fed. They get nourishment by developing new blood vessels in a process called angiogenesis. The new blood vessels supply the tumor with nutrients that promote growth.

As the malignant breast tumor grows, it can expand into nearby tissue. This process is called invasion. Cells can also break away from the primary, or main tumor, and spread to other parts of the body. The cells spread by traveling through the blood stream and/or lymphatic system. This process is called metastasis.

When malignant breast cells appear in a new location, they begin to divide and grow out of control again as they create another tumor. Even though the new tumor is growing in another part of the body, it is still called breast cancer. The most common locations of metastatic breast cancer are the lungs, liver, bones and brain.

Cells can grow out of control before any symptoms of the disease appear. That is why breast screening to find early changes is so important. If breast cancer is found early, there are more treatment options and improved chance for survival.

Susan G. Komen for the Cure® recommends that women 40 years and older have a mammogram every year. If you have a history of breast cancer in your family, talk with your doctor about your personal risk, including when to start getting mammograms and how often to have them.

If your mother or sister had breast cancer before menopause, you may need to start getting mammograms or other tests and yearly clinical breast exams before age 40. It is important for all women to have clinical breast exams at least every three years starting at age 20 and every year after age 40.