Breast cancer is a disease in which malignant cancer cells form in the tissues of the breast. The breast is made up of lobes and ducts. Each breast has 15 to 20 sections called lobes, which have many smaller sections called lobules. Lobules end in dozens of tiny bulbs that can produce milk. The lobes, lobules, and bulbs are linked by thin tubes called ducts. Each breast also has blood vessels and lymph vessels.

The lymph vessels carry an almost colorless fluid called lymph. Lymph vessels lead to organs called lymph nodes. Lymph nodes are small bean-shaped structures that are found throughout the body. They filter substances in a fluid called lymph and help fight infection and disease. Clusters of lymph nodes are found near the breast in the axilla (under the arm), above the collarbone, and in the chest.

The most common type of breast cancer is ductal carcinoma, which begins in the cells of the ducts. Cancer that begins in the lobes or lobules is called lobular carcinoma and is more often found in both breasts than are other types of breast cancer. Inflammatory breast cancer is an uncommon type of breast cancer in which the breast is warm, red, and swollen.

Risk factors for breast cancer include the following:

  • Older age
  • Older age at first birth or never having given birth
  • A personal history of breast cancer or benign (noncancer) breast disease
  • A mother or sister with breast cancer
  • Treatment with radiation therapy to the breast/chest
  • Breast tissue that is dense on a mammogram
  • Taking hormones such as estrogen and progesterone
  • Drinking alcoholic beverages
  • Being caucasian

Breast cancer is sometimes caused by inherited gene mutations (changes). The genes in cells carry the hereditary information that is received from a person's parents. Hereditary breast cancer makes up approximately 5% to 10% of all breast cancer. Some altered genes related to breast cancer are more common in certain ethnic groups.

Detecting Breast Cancer in Elderly People

Tests that examine the breasts are used to detect (find) and diagnose breast cancer in elderly people. A doctor should be seen if changes in the breast are noticed.

The following tests and procedures may be used:

Mammogram: An x-ray of the breast.

Biopsy: The removal of cells or tissues so they can be viewed under a microscope by a pathologist to check for signs of cancer. If a lump in the breast is found, the doctor may need to remove a small piece of the lump. Four types of biopsies are as follows:

  • Excisional biopsy: The removal of an entire lump of tissue.
  • Incisional biopsy: The removal of part of a lump or a sample of tissue.
  • Core biopsy: The removal of tissue using a wide needle.
  • Fine-needle aspiration (FNA) biopsy: The removal of tissue or fluid, using a thin needle.
  • Estrogen and progesterone receptor test: A test to measure the amount of estrogen and progesterone (hormones) receptors in cancer tissue. If cancer is found in the breast, tissue from the tumor is checked in the laboratory to find out whether estrogen and progesterone could affect the way cancer grows. The test results show whether hormone therapy may stop the cancer from growing.
  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging): A procedure that uses a magnet, radio waves, and a computer to make a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body. This procedure is also called nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (NMRI). Certain factors affect prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options.

Chance of Recovering From Breast Cancer

The prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options depend on the following:

  • The stage of the cancer (the size of the tumor and whether it is in the breast only or has spread to lymph nodes or other places in the body).
  • The type of breast cancer.
  • Estrogen-receptor and progesterone-receptor levels in the tumor tissue.
  • Whether the cells have high levels of human epidermal growth factor type 2 receptors (HER2/neu).
  • How fast the tumor is growing.
  • A woman's age, general health, and menopausal status.
  • Whether the cancer has just been diagnosed or has recurred (come back).

Treating Breast Cancer in Elderly People

There are different types of treatment for elderly people with breast cancer. Some cancer treatments are standard (the currently used treatment), and some are being tested in clinical trials. A treatment clinical trial is a research study meant to help improve current treatments or obtain information on new treatments for patients with cancer.

Breast Cancer Treatments

Five types of standard treatment are used for elderly seniors with breast cancer:


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Surgery

Most patients with breast cancer have surgery to remove the cancer from the breast. Some of the lymph nodes under the arm are usually taken out and looked at under a microscope to see if they contain cancer cells. Breast-conserving surgery, an operation to remove the cancer but not the breast itself, includes the following:

  • Lumpectomy: Surgery to remove a tumor (lump) and a small amount of normal tissue around it.
  • Partial mastectomy: Surgery to remove the part of the breast that has cancer and some normal tissue around it. This procedure is also called a segmental mastectomy.

Patients who are treated with breast-conserving surgery may also have some of the lymph nodes under the arm removed for biopsy. This procedure is called lymph node dissection. It may be done at the same time as the breast-conserving surgery or after. Lymph node dissection is done through a separate incision. Other types of surgery include the following:

  • Total mastectomy: Surgery to remove the whole breast that has cancer. This procedure is also called a simple mastectomy. Some of the lymph nodes under the arm may be removed for biopsy at the same time as the breast surgery or after. This is done through a separate incision. Modified radical mastectomy: Surgery to remove the whole breast that has cancer, many of the lymph nodes under the arm, the lining over the chest muscles, and sometimes, part of the chest wall muscles.

  • Radical mastectomy: Surgery to remove the breast that has cancer, chest wall muscles under the breast, and all of the lymph nodes under the arm. This procedure is sometimes called a Halsted radical mastectomy. Even if the doctor removes all the cancer that can be seen at the time of the surgery, some patients may be given radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or hormone therapy after surgery to kill any cancer cells that are left. Treatment given after the surgery, to lower the risk that the cancer will come back, is called adjuvant therapy. If a patient is going to have a mastectomy, breast reconstruction (surgery to rebuild a breast's shape after a mastectomy) may be considered. Breast reconstruction may be done at the time of the mastectomy or at a future time. The reconstructed breast may be made with the patient's own (nonbreast) tissue or by using implants filled with saline or silicone gel.

Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses high-energy x-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells or keep them from growing. There are two types of radiation therapy. External radiation therapy uses a machine outside the body to send radiation toward the cancer. Internal radiation therapy uses a radioactive substance sealed in needles, seeds, wires, or catheters that are placed directly into or near the cancer. The way the radiation therapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping them from dividing. When chemotherapy is taken by mouth or injected into a vein or muscle, the drugs enter the bloodstream and can reach cancer cells throughout the body (systemic chemotherapy). When chemotherapy is placed directly into the spinal column, an organ, or a body cavity such as the abdomen, the drugs mainly affect cancer cells in those areas (regional chemotherapy). The way the chemotherapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated.

Hormone Therapy

Hormone therapy is a cancer treatment that removes hormones or blocks their action and stops cancer cells from growing. Hormones are substances produced by glands in the body and circulated in the bloodstream. Some hormones can cause certain cancers to grow. If tests show that the cancer cells have places where hormones can attach (receptors), drugs, surgery, or radiation therapy is used to reduce the production of hormones or block them from working. The hormone estrogen, which makes some breast cancers grow, is made mainly by the ovaries.


The National Cancer Institute conducts and supports research, training, health information dissemination, and other programs with respect to the cause, diagnosis, prevention, and treatment of cancer, rehabilitation from cancer, and the continuing care of cancer patients and the families of cancer patients. For more information, visit the National Cancer Institute's website .