In a healthy body, natural systems control the creation, growth and death of cells.
Cancer occurs when these systems don’t work right and cells don’t die at the normal rate. So, there’s more cell growth than cell death.
This excess growth can form a tumor.
Breast cancer occurs when cells in the breast divide and grow without their normal control.
Tumors in the breast tend to grow slowly.
By the time a lump is large enough to feel, it may have been growing for as long as 10 years. (Some tumors are aggressive and grow much faster.)
Between 50-75 percent of breast cancers begin in the milk ducts, about 10-15 percent begin in the lobules and a few begin in other breast tissues .
Learn more about breast anatomy.
Ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) occurs when abnormal cells grow inside the milk ducts, but have not spread to nearby tissue or beyond.
The term "in situ" means "in place." With DCIS, the abnormal cells are still inside the ducts.
DCIS is a non-invasive breast cancer. You may also hear the terms “pre-invasive” or “pre-cancerous” to describe DCIS.
Although DCIS is non-invasive, without treatment, it can develop into invasive breast cancer.
Learn more about DCIS and the risk of invasive breast cancer.
Learn about treatment for DCIS.
Invasive breast cancer occurs when abnormal cells from inside the milk ducts or lobules break out into nearby breast tissue.
Cancer cells can travel from the breast to other parts of the body through the blood stream or the lymphatic system. They may travel early in the process when a tumor is small or later when a tumor is large.
The lymph nodes in the underarm area (axillary lymph nodes) are the first place breast cancer is likely to spread.
Learn about treatment for invasive breast cancer.
Metastatic breast cancer (also called stage IV or advanced breast cancer) is invasive breast cancer that has spread beyond the breast and axillary lymph nodes to other organs in the body (most often the bones, lungs, liver or brain).
Metastatic breast cancer is not a specific type of breast cancer, but rather the most advanced stage of breast cancer.
Learn about treatment for metastatic breast cancer.
Breast cancer in men is rare, but it does happen.
Learn more about breast cancer in men.
Most cancers that occur in the breast are breast cancers (breast carcinomas).
In rare cases:
Other types of tumors in the breast can be benign (not cancer) or malignant (cancerous).
Because these cancers are not carcinomas, treatment is different than treatment for breast cancer.
For more information on other cancers that can occur in the breast, such as lymphomas and phyllodes tumors, visit the National Cancer Institute's website.
*American Cancer Society. Cancer Facts and Figures 2017. Atlanta, GA: American Cancer Society, 2017.
Breast Cancer 101
Ductal Carcinoma in Situ
How has having breast cancer changed your outlook?