What is Breast Cancer?

This mammogram, showing an abnormality in the breast, is one of the best ways to diagnose breast cancer. Credit: iStockphoto

At the Maurer Foundation we spend a lot of time discussing the risks factors, research, and early detection of breast cancer… but we don’t want to neglect the basics. What, exactly, is breast cancer and how does it develop?

In its simplest terms, cancer occurs when the growth of cells isn’t controlled like it should be. This happens when the genetic regulation of cell growth (DNA’s signal for when new cells should form, when old cells should die off, and the proper disposal of damaged cells) is disrupted.

When a cell keeps dividing and producing more cells without proper regulation, a mass of unwanted cellular tissue (like a tumor) can form. If the cells in that tumor are not cancerous and don’t invade nearby tissues, they are called “benign” (not causing harm). If the cells are cancerous and will spread to other tissues and parts of the body, the tumor is “malignant” (or causing harm).

When those unregulated cells are found in the breast, it is known as breast cancer. Breast cancer typically develops in the cells of the breast’s milk-producing glands (known as lobules) or the ducts, where milk flows from the lobules to the nipple. When those cells grow without the proper regulation, hard lumps of tissue can form in the breast, which is why performing monthly breast self-exams is so important. This is the best way to detect potential tumors early, before those cancerous cells can spread beyond the breast to other parts of the body, like the lymph nodes under the arms.

This the short explanation of breast cancer, but as we’ve discussed, there is much more to the story. Here are some additional articles on the mechanics of breast cancer:

While we may understand how breast cancer occurs, we are still uncovering the reasons why our genetic processes become disrupted in the first place. Continued research will tell us more about the interplay between heredity, age, our hormones, and our environment; in the meantime, we encourage women to focus on the factors they can control! Avoiding obesity, excessive alcohol intake, and smoking have all been linked to lower rates of breast cancer. Embracing exercise and eating a healthy diet, with lots of anti-cancer foods, are some of the best cancer-fighting weapons you can wield today!