Frequently Asked Questions

About the Breast

What is the breast made up of?

The breast is made up of fat, milk glands, and tubes (called ducts) that carry the milk to the nipple. Each breast has sections called lobes. The ducts are thin tubes that unite the lobes, lobules and bulbs. Within each lobe, there are several lobules that end in bulbs that produce milk. All these structures are cushioned by fat. There are no muscles in the breast, but muscles do lie under each breast, covering the ribs.


Your breast also contains blood vessels and lymph vessels. Lymph vessels carry a  colourless fluid called lymph and lead to small bean-shaped organs called lymph nodes. Clusters of lymph nodes are found near the breast under the arm (known as the axilla). Lymph nodes help the body defend itself against sickness and infection.

About Breast Cancer

How does cancer start in the breast?

Normally, as cells in your body die because of damage or age, your body produces millions of cells to replace them. This practice keeps the body healthy. The problem starts when your body begins to overproduce cells it doesn't need. An uncontrolled growth of cells can form a mass of tissue called a growth or a tumour. Tumours can be benign (non-cancerous) or malignant (cancerous).


Cancer is the abnormal, uncontrolled growth of cells, destroying normal, healthy tissue. 

How does cancer spread?

A tumour can cause trouble for your body by possibly spreading to other areas or travelling through lymph channels or blood vessels. The act of these cells spreading to other areas to form tumours is known as metastasis. Metastatic growth of tumours in your body's organs is more serious than the original tumour that started in your breast.


Cancer that spreads from the breast to other areas of your body is still known as breast cancer. For example, if your breast cancer spreads to your bones, it is not called bone cancer; it is called metastatic breast cancer involving bone or bone metastases.

What is that lump in my breast?

The breast examination – either a mammogram or a physical examination – conducted by your doctor or nurse examiner revealed a lump. A test (called a biopsy) may indicate that it is a benign (non-cancerous) or malignant (cancerous) lump. If the lump is cancerous, further tests may be ordered, and following up with your doctor is extremely important, even if your lump is considered benign.

What is the difference between a benign tumour and a malignant tumour of the breast?

A benign tumour of the breast is a non-cancerous growth that does not spread or metastasize to other parts of your body and is not usually life-threatening. Malignant tumours of the breast are cancerous growths that have the potential to spread or metastasize to other parts of your body.

What is the difference between early breast cancer and advanced breast cancer?

Early stage breast cancer:


  • Has not spread beyond the breast or the axillary lymph nodes.
  • This includes ductal carcinoma in situa and stage IA, stage IB, and stage IIA breast cancers.


Advanced breast cancer:


  • The most serious of the five possible stages: stage III and stage IV.
  • Stage III is locally advanced breast cancer, which means the cancer has spread to lymph nodes and / or other tissue in the breast, but not to further sites in the body.
  • Stage IV is mestastic breast cancer, meaning the cancer has spread to other parts of the body.

What is my risk of breast cancer recurrence?

The risk of recurrence will differ for every patient and is based on a number of factors, such as hormonal status, nodal status and if there are cancer cells remaining after surgery. Once you’ve had surgery for early breast cancer, your doctor will look at the risk that the cancer will come back (recur) to decide if you should be offered additional treatments (called adjuvant therapy). The higher the risk that the cancer will come back, the more likely giving an adjuvant therapy will help prevent it. You can have a low, moderate or high risk of recurrence.
 
It’s important to speak with your doctor if you’re concerned about cancer recurrence to understand if you’re more at risk.

Do men get breast cancer?

Yes. Breast cancer starts in the breast tissue. Men have breast tissue just like women, but their breasts are less developed.

Grading And Staging

What is grading?

Grading is a way of classifying breast cancer cells based on their appearance and behaviour when viewed under a microscope. To find out the grade of a tumour, the biopsy sample is examined under a microscope. A grade is given based on how the cancer cells look and behave compared with normal cells (differentiation). This can give the health care team an idea of how quickly your cancer may be growing and how likely it is to spread.


Grading plays an important part in planning your breast cancer treatment and can also be used to help estimate your prognosis (future outcome).

What is staging?

Staging is a way of describing or classifying a cancer based on the extent of cancer in your body. The most common classification system for breast cancer is the TNM staging system based on the tumour size (T), nodal involvement (N) and the presence or absence of metastases (M). The International Union Against Cancer (UICC) uses the TNM staging system to describe the extent of many solid tumour cancers.

Prognosis And Clinical Trials

What is my prognosis?

A prognosis is the doctor’s best estimate of how cancer will affect you and how you will respond to treatment.


Women with breast cancer may have questions about their prognosis and survival. Prognosis and survival depend on many factors. Only a doctor familiar with your medical history, the type, stage and characteristics of your cancer, the treatments chosen and your response to treatment can put all of this information together with survival statistics to arrive at your prognosis.

What else can I do in addition to my treatment?

In addition to medical treatments like surgery, radiation, chemotherapy and other targeted treatments, a number of other therapies have helped women manage symptoms and relieve stress. A well balanced diet, plenty of fluids, regular exercise and adequate sleep help the body function at its best. Acupuncture, aromatherapy, massage therapy, energy medicine and yoga are just a few of the other options you may consider in addition to your conventional treatments.


It’s important to discuss the possible benefits and risks of these types of alternative and complementary therapies with your health care team. Also, complementary therapy shouldn’t be thought of as an alternative to conventional treatments, as complementary therapies do not treat the cancer itself.


What is a clinical trial?

Through clinical trials, scientists, researchers and health care professionals are constantly looking for new ways to treat and prevent breast cancer. As a patient, you may want to ask about potential clinical trials available to you. If you are eligible, the possible benefits and risks will be explained to make sure you are well informed and you are able to provide consent if you decide to proceed.   


You can find out what clinical trials are currently available by speaking to your health care team or searching on www.canadiancancertrials.ca or clinicaltrials.gov.