Hearing the words “you have breast cancer” solemnly uttered by your doctor is a devastating blow. It may leave you feeling helpless and confused. However, there are things you can do to take charge of your care. Learning and coming to understand different breast cancer terms a is a simple way of making it easier to understand what you will be experiencing over the next several months and years. Although doing research about breast cancer and reconstruction can be difficult for women who are still learning to accept their initial diagnosis, it is an important process that puts you back in charge during a time when you may feel completely out of control.
Breast Cancer Terms
There are thousands of terms that you may encounter following a diagnosis of breast cancer. We will go over some of the most common, but for any terms that are not included, feel free to search through the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Glossary or other breast cancer glossaries. You should also ask your doctor for clarification of terms during your visits to ensure you leave with a clear understanding of the next step in your treatment and diagnosis.
In this article, we will also skip the different members of your medical team. However, you can read about the different diagnosticians, surgeons, and other medical team members you may be working with in our article Titles and Roles of the Different Members of My Medical Team.
Breast Cancer Diagnosis
- Benign: a tumor that is non-cancerous and unlikely to spread to other areas of the body.
- Biomarker: a biomarker is any biological substance, such as blood or other fluids, that is used to determine whether a particular process in the body is abnormal or shows signs of breast cancer. Biomarkers are also used to measure how well treatment for breast cancer is working.
- Biopsy: a process that involves removing and testing tissue from an area in the body to determine whether cancer cells are present.
- Needle biopsy: a specific type of biopsy procedure that involved taking a sample of tissue or fluid from the breast using a needle. There are two types: core biopsy, which uses a thicker needle, and fine needle aspiration, which uses a thin needle.
- DCIS: commonly referred to as stage 0 breast cancer, DCIS stands for ductal carcinoma in situ and is used in reference to a non-invasive breast cancer found in the milk ducts. With this type of breast cancer, the abnormal cells have not spread to any nearby breast tissue.
- IBC: this is a rare form of locally advanced breast cancer and is highly aggressive. IBC stands for “inflammatory breast cancer” and some of the main symptoms of it are redness on the breast and swelling.
- IDC: another type of breast cancer that makes up around 50 to 75 percent of all cancer cases. IDC (infiltrating ductal carcinoma) begins in the milk ducts and later spreads to breast tissue near the ducts.
- ILC: standing for invasive lobular carcinoma, ILC is seen in around 10 to 15 percent of all cases. This type forms in the milk-producing lobules and later spreads elsewhere in the breast.
- Imaging tests: imaging tests are used to monitor or detect breast cancer through different means. An MRI, or magnetic resonance imaging, scan uses radio waves to detect cancerous cells while a mammogram and ultrasound use radiation and sound waves, respectively.
- Malignant: a cancerous tumor that has a high likelihood of spreading without treatment.
- Metastasis: the most advanced stage of breast cancer, metastasis is when the breast cancer has spread to other organs in the body. It is also referred to as stage IV breast cancer.
Breast Cancer Treatment
- Adriamycin: more commonly called “red devil,” adriamycin is a common chemotherapy drug that is used in the treatment of breast cancer.
- Adjunct systemic therapy: used to improve survival and prevent the recurrence of breast cancer in patients. It is given either after or in addition to main and initial treatments.
- Alopecia: the technical term for hair loss. It commonly occurs all over the body in patients undergoing chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer.
- Complementary therapies: various treatments that are used alongside traditional chemotherapy or hormone therapy to decrease the side effects. Some examples include massage and meditation.
- Lumpectomy: a type of breast conserving surgery that only removes the breast tissue that contains cancerous cells along with some of the close surrounding tissue.
- Mastectomy: a surgical procedure that removes a breast. It can be performed on either or both breasts.
- Total mastectomy: also known as a simple mastectomy, total mastectomies remove the entire breast and leave the muscles beneath the breast.
- Modified radical mastectomy: the same as a total mastectomy, expect surgeons also perform an axillary lymph node dissection that remove level I and II underarm lymph nodes.
- Radical mastectomy: a total mastectomy that removes levels I, II, and III underarm lymph nodes during the procedure.
- Partial mastectomy: a procedure that removes only the cancerous breast tissue along with some of the surrounding normal tissue. It removes more tissue than a lumpectomy.
- Subcutaneous mastectomy: also known as a nipple-sparing mastectomy, subcutaneous mastectomies remove the entire breast while leaving the nipple.
- Neoadjuvant therapy: targeted treatment, hormone therapy, or chemotherapy that is given to a woman prior to surgery. It can also be given before primary treatment.
- Prophylactic mastectomy: a preventative surgery that involves removing a woman’s breasts before cancer cells are found. It is also called a preventive mastectomy and is meant to decrease the risk of developing breast cancer.
- Tamoxifen: a drug that is used for advanced and early breast cancer treatment. It is a type of hormone therapy.
Breast Cancer Recovery
- Lymphedema: a complication that may occur following breast cancer treatment. It causes certain areas of the body, such as the fingers, hand, or chest, to swell from lymph fluid that has collected in the arm.
- NED: more commonly called remission, NED means no evidence of disease and is used when all symptoms and signs of cancer are gone.
- Prognosis: refers to each patient’s individual predicted outlook for recovery and survival after treatment. It is determined based on a wide range of factors such as stage and type of breast cancer, statistics, and cell growth rates.
- Prosthesis: a breast form that is fitted to a patient’s chest and is placed either in a special bra or directly on the skin. Most breast prostheses are made from either foam, silicone, or gel, but other materials are sometimes used.
- Reconstruction: used to restore the feel and look of the breast following its removal. Reconstruction is performed by a plastic surgeon.
- Recurrence: a term used in reference to the return of breast cancer cells. The new cells can be located either in other parts of the body or the same breast as the initial diagnosis.
- Survivorship: a term that references the life and health of an individual following treatment for breast cancer. It can refer to everything from quality of life to follow-up treatment or late treatment effects.
Breast Reconstruction Terms
Opting for breast reconstruction after a mastectomy is an entirely personal choice made by women and is never required. For women who do choose to have their breasts reconstructed following a mastectomy, knowing some of the basic terms relating to the process can make things easier and help women feel in charge of what is happening to their body.
- Anesthesia: the loss of sensation in the body that results from either gases or the injection of drugs. It is artificially induced prior to surgery to prevent pain.
- General anesthesia: general anesthesia is used during an operation so that the patient is not conscious and to remove any pain. It may be administered either as a gas or drug injection.
- Local anesthesia: a drug that is injected in a specific area of the body to remove pain during an operation.
- Areola: the circle of skin surrounding the nipple that is darkly shaded.
- Autologous reconstruction: a type of breast reconstruction that involves taking tissue from another area on the body and moving it to the breast. Tissue is often taken from less exposed areas of the body, including the abdomen, back, and thighs.
- Capsular contracture: a common complication resulting from breast implant surgery that causes reconstructed breasts to become firm. It occurs when the scar tissue begins hardening around the implant.
- Capsulotomy: a procedure that is used to break the scar tissue surrounding an implant. Available as either a closed or open procedure. Closed capsulotomies press or push on the scar tissue to cause it to break while open capsulotomies make an incision into the scar capsule directly.
- Donor site: the area of the body from which surgeons take skin, muscle, and fat to reconstruct a breast during autologous reconstruction.
- Grafting: commonly used to recreate the areola and nipple, grafting is a surgical technique that involves taking live tissue from a different area of the body and placing it on the breast area.
- Hematoma: a medical terms that describes the pooling of blood underneath the skin.
- Silent rupture: most commonly experienced with silicone-filled breast implants, a silent rupture is an implant rupture that does not result in any symptoms. Silent ruptures are often not recognized without the use of imaging techniques.
- Symptomatic rupture: an implant rupture that does result in symptoms. Mostly found among saline implant ruptures. Symptoms can include a change in the shape of the implant, hardening of the breast, and pain.
- Tissue expansion: a surgical technique that uses a tissue expander, a temporary implant, to stretch tissue over time. By stretching the breast tissue, it ensures an adequate pocket exists to place the final implant.