Characteristics of breast cancer
When a biopsy is done, and cancer has been confirmed, there are additional things the oncologist needs to know about the cancer.
Hormone receptor status: This determines if the cancer cells use either estrogen or progesterone (or both) to grow. If there are estrogen receptors on the cancer cells, it is called ER+, and for progesterone, PR+. If there aren’t any, then it is referred to as ER- and PR-.
HER2 status: The HER2 protein can be used by some cancer cells to grow quickly. If there are high levels of HER2 on the cancer cells, it is called HER2+ breast cancer. If little or no HER2 receptors are seen, then it is HER2-.
Breast cancer can be described as triple positive (ER+, HR+, HER2+), triple negative (ER-, PR-, HER2-), or can be a combination of positivity or negativity of any of them.
Ductal vs lobular: This describes the area of the breast where the cancer cells originated, either the milk ducts or the lobules of the breast.
Additionally, other characteristics such as how quickly the cancer cells are dividing, and how similar (or not) they look to normal cells, helps round out all of the information the oncologist needs to develop the correct treatment plan for each person with breast cancer.
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What is Breast Cancer?
Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in women in the United States. The average female will have about a 13% chance of getting breast cancer sometime in her life. That number may be higher for women who are at higher risk due to genetic factors.
The most common risk factors for getting breast cancer include:
- Getting older
- Family history of breast or ovarian cancer
- Genetic mutations such as BRCA
- Having dense breasts
- Previously having radiation therapy to the chest
- Taking hormone replacement therapy for > 5 years
- Heavy alcohol use
Mammograms are x-rays of the breast. These x-rays can look for changes of the breast that may suggest the development of breast cancer. If something suspicious is seen on a mammogram, the next step is usually a breast ultrasound.
A breast ultrasound can be done to get a better look at something a mammogram showed, or to get a better look at dense breasts. An ultrasound can also be done during a biopsy to help guide the radiologist on where to get the tissue.
Breast MRI is another diagnostic tool that can be used to look at the breasts. Sometimes they are used as a screening tool for those at high risk of getting breast cancer. MRI can be used if the mammogram and ultrasound are inconclusive.
CT scans and PET scans can be done after someone has been diagnosed with breast cancer, to see if there has been any spread of cancer outside of the breasts.
If a mass in the breast is suspicious for cancer, a biopsy will be ordered. This is often done by a surgeon or radiologist, who will get a small sample of the tissue to check for the presence of cancer cells.
Once a diagnosis is made, and any other additional imaging is done, the cancer team can diagnose the stage of the cancer.
Breast cancer is staged from 0 to IV, with higher stages meaning the cancer is more advanced. Staging is based on the size of the tumor, the involvement of any nearby lymph nodes, and presence of metastases, or spread to other organs.
Are you interested in learning more about Breast Cancer Characteristics? Check out our next article on this topic.