To better understand breast cancer, you should be familiar with the normal structure of the breasts.
The female breast is mainly composed of:
- lobules (milk-producing glands),
- ducts (tiny tubes that carry the milk from the lobules to the nipple), and
- stroma (fatty tissue and connective tissue surrounding the ducts and lobules, blood vessels, and lymphatic vessels).
The lymph system is an important structure to know because it is one channel through which breast cancers can spread. Lymph nodes are small collections of immune system cells (cells of the immune system that defend the body against infections) that are connected by lymphatic vessels. Breast cancer cells can have access to lymphatic vessels and begin to grow in lymph nodes.
Most lymphatic vessels in the breast connect to lymph nodes under the arm (axillary nodes). Some lymphatic vessels connect to lymph nodes inside the chest (internal mammary nodes) and those either above or below the collarbone (supraclavicular or infraclavicular nodes). If the cancer cells have reached the lymph nodes, the likelihood that the cancer cells have also gone through the bloodstream into other body sites becomes higher. This is called metastasis. The more lymph nodes are affected with breast cancer cells, the more likely it is that the cancer may be found in other organs as well.
Symptoms of breast cancer include:
1- CHANGE IN HOW THE BREASTS AND/OR NIPPLE FEEL UPON PALPATION
• Nipple tenderness or a lump or thickening in or near the breast or underarm area
• A change in the skin texture or an enlargement of pores in the skin of the breast; this is known as peau d’orange (or orange peel)
• A lump in the breast: this is why it is essential to examine all breast lumps by a healthcare professional, but not all lumps are cancerous.
2- A CHANGE IN THE BREAST OR NIPPLE APPEARANCE
• Any unexplained change in the size or shape of the breast
• Dimpling anywhere on the breast
• Unexplained swelling of the breast (especially if on one side only)
• Unexplained shrinkage of the breast (especially if on one side only)
• Recent asymmetry of the breasts: this can be a common normal variant, but if the onset of asymmetry is recent, it should be checked.
• Nipple that is turned slightly inward or inverted
• Skin of the breast, areola, or nipple that becomes scaly, red, or swollen or may have ridges or pitting resembling the skin of an orange
Most often, the above described symptoms are not due to cancer, but any breast symptom that is suspicious of cancer should be investigated as soon as it is discovered. If you have any of these symptoms, you should get examined by your doctor so that the problem can be diagnosed and treated.