Understanding Breast Cancer

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Understanding Breast Cancer

Understanding your breast cancer diagnosis is a great way to take back control. A cancer diagnosis can be a scary, stressful and confusing time in a woman's life. There are so many different words and terms when it comes to describing and characterizing cancer. It's easy to get lost. What does it all mean?

Glossary of Common Breast Cancer Terms

When explaining the different stages of cancer and the various parts of the body that it affects, many different terms are used. The lingo can be confusing and scary when you're not sure what it means. Below are terms that a woman diagnosed with breast cancer may hear:

  • Local. This term is used to describe cancer that is within the breast.
  • Regional. This term describes the stage of breast cancer when cancer cells are present in the lymph nodes, primarily those around the armpit.
  • Distant. This signifies that cancer is found in other parts of the body.
  • Lymph nodes. The human body has a network of lymph vessels and nodes. Lymph nodes are part of the immune system and collect fluids, waste materials, viruses and bacteria that are found in the body's tissue.
  • Axillary lymph nodes. This type of lymph node is found in the underarm. They form a chain that goes from the underarm to the collarbone. Knowing if these nodes have cancer cells helps to determine which stage the breast cancer has reached.
  • Invasive. When a doctor uses the term invasive, he or she means that cancer has grown into a woman's normal body tissue and that part of the cancer has stayed within the milk lobules.
  • Non-invasive. If cancer has been described as non-invasive, this means that abnormal cells have grown inside the milk ducts but have not spread beyond the milk ducts.

Cancer Stages

First and foremost, it's important to understand what a cancer stage means. Cancer stages are categorized based on four characteristics that describe the degree of cancer in the body:

  • The size of the tumor
  • Whether cancer is in the lymph nodes
  • Whether cancer is invasive or non-invasive
  • If cancer has spread beyond the breast

Determining a cancer's stage is the most crucial aspect of a patient's prognosis and guides decisions about what is the best treatment option. Cancer stages are described as Stage 0, Stage I (IA/IB), Stage II (IIA/IIB), Stage III (IIIA/IIIB/IIIC), Stage IV.

Learn about specific types of breast cancer.

Tumor Stages

Tumors also have various stages. Researchers use the TNM system (tumor, node, metastasis) to better understand the cancer staging and to provide details about how a woman's cancer looks and acts. This system of staging is based on three separate characteristics:
  • Lymph node involvement
  • Tumor size
  • If cancer has metastasized or spread