Thumbnail image of: Breast Self-Exam: Illustration

Cancer of the Breast

What is cancer of the breast?

Cancer of the breast (breast cancer) is an abnormal growth of cells that form tumors in the breast. If the cancer spreads to other areas of the body, it is still breast cancer, and is called metastatic cancer.

There are different types and stages of breast cancer based on what kind of cancer cells are found, where the tumor started and where it has spread. Knowing your type and stage of breast cancer helps your healthcare provider decide on the best treatment plan for you. It is important to diagnose and treat breast cancer as soon as possible. The main goals of treatment are to kill the tumor cells, prevent a localized cancer from spreading, and prevent metastatic cancer from spreading more than it already has.

Several things increase your risk for breast cancer, including:

  • You are over age 60.
  • You had breast cancer or some non-cancerous breast diseases.
  • You have a family history of breast or ovarian cancer (especially mother, sister, or daughter, but also from other relatives on either your father’s or mother’s side).
  • You have mutations in certain genes (BRCA1 and BRCA2).
  • You had radiation therapy to the chest.
  • You drink alcohol (risk rises as intake increases).
  • You are overweight or obese after menopause.
  • You do not get regular exercise.
  • You had your first period before the age of 12.
  • You never gave birth.
  • You were older at the birth of your first child.
  • You did not breastfeed.
  • You went through menopause after age 55.
  • You take hormone replacement therapy (estrogen and progesterone) for many years.

What can I expect in the hospital?

Several things may be done while you are in the hospital to monitor, test, and treat your condition. They include:


  • You will be checked often by the hospital staff.
  • Your fluid intake may be monitored closely by keeping track of everything you eat and drink and any IV fluids you receive.
  • Your fluid output may be monitored closely by keeping track of the amount of urine and bowel movements you produce.


Tests to check for cancer or if the cancer has spread to other parts of your body may include:

  • Blood tests to check for certain hormones, proteins, or chemicals that may be high if you have cancer
  • Tests to look for abnormalities in your breast and lymph nodes, which may include:
    • Computed tomography (CT) scan: A series of X-rays taken from different angles and arranged by a computer to show thin cross sections of the breast and areas near the breast
    • Cultures: Tests in which cells and fluid are gently collected from your breast and nipple to check for infection. The cells are sent to a lab for tests.
    • Ultrasound scan: Sound waves and their echoes are passed through your body from a small device (called a transducer) that is held against your skin to create pictures of the inside of the breast tissue
    • Mammogram X-rays: Pictures of the inside of the breast tissue to check for cancer
    • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): A powerful magnetic field and radio waves are used to take pictures from different angles to show thin cross sections of the anus and other areas where the cancer may have spread.
  • X-rays: Pictures of the inside of your chest and bones to check for cancer
  • Bone scan: A test in which you will be given an injection of a low-level radioactive material in an IV. A special camera will take pictures of your bones to see any areas of bone where the radioactive material is being absorbed.
  • Positron emission tomography (PET) scan: A series of detailed pictures that are taken after your healthcare provider injects a small amount of radioactive material into your blood. The scan shows areas where the radioactive material is being absorbed.


The treatment for breast cancer depends on how far the cancer has spread, how well you respond to treatment, your overall health, and any complications you may have.

Your chance of cure depends on how far the cancer has advanced. You may need to make lifestyle changes to stay as healthy as possible and manage other treatments you may need.

  • You will have a small tube (IV catheter) inserted into a vein in your hand or arm. This will allow for medicine to be given directly into your blood and to give you fluids, if needed.
  • You may need surgery to treat breast cancer. Surgery may include:
    • Lumpectomy: Surgery to remove the breast tumor
    • Mastectomy: Surgery to remove most or all of the breast tissue. Sometimes more tissue around the breast tissue must be removed, including chest muscle.
    • Lymph node dissection: Surgery to remove lymph nodes near the breast and under the arm to check if the cancer has already spread. It also allows the pathologist to determine the stage of the cancer accurately. This will allow your healthcare providers to determine if you need more treatment after you recover from surgery.
  • Other treatments may include:
    • Chemotherapy (anticancer drugs), which uses medicine to kill cancer cells.
    • Biological therapy, which uses medicine designed to help your immune system fight the cancer or block the growth of cancer cells.
    • Radiation therapy, which uses high-energy X-rays to kill cancer cells.
  • Your provider may also prescribe medicine or other therapy to:
    • Treat pain
    • Treat or prevent an infection
    • Treat or prevent side effects, such as nausea or constipation, from other treatments
    • Treat or prevent low blood counts caused by the cancer or its treatment
    • Help your immune system fight cancer

What can I do to help?

  • You will need to tell your healthcare team if you have new or worsening:
    • Trouble breathing
    • Deep bone pain
    • Nausea or vomiting
    • Numbness, swelling, or pain in your arm or hand on the same side as your breast surgery
    • Redness, swelling, pain, warmth, or drainage from your surgical wound
    • Fever, chills, or muscle aches
    • Depression
  • Ask questions about any medicine, treatment, or information that you do not understand.

How long will I be in the hospital?

How long you stay in the hospital depends on many factors. The average amount of time to stay in the hospital with breast cancer is 2 to 3 days.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Acute Care Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-12-19
Last reviewed: 2014-11-21
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

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