The Causes and Stages of Breast Cancer

”Breast Cancer Ribbon"
Photo by Wavebreakmedia –

In our October 2017 article, we discussed some of the statistics related to BRCA1 and BRCA2 breast cancer. Let us continue with a more elaborate discussion of the underlying causes of this terrible illness, as a better understanding of breast cancer can lead to more vigilance and awareness.

When cells in the breast tissue face an alteration or they mutate and keep reproducing is when breast cancer transpires. Cells which are an anomaly typically assemble to form a tumor.

A tumor can become cancerous or malignant when these cells infiltrate other segments of the breast or if they disseminate to other parts of the body through the bloodstream or lymphatic systems. The latter is a network of vessels that are meant to combat infections in the human body.

In principle, breast cancer originates in the glands which produce milk in the breasts. These are called lobules and carry milk to the nipples. Although less likely, breast cancer may be traced back to the fatty connective tissues in the breasts.
Metastasis sites for common cancers


Breast cancer is launched by a genetic mutation that occurs in the Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) of breast cancer cells. This occurs is not an exact science yet, but research has indicated that a deviation may develop arbitrarily in some individuals over a period of time, while others may inherit it from their parent. There are also instances where breast cancer patients may suffer from cancer because of environmental exposure or their choices and lifestyle. Breast cancer typically affects women who are 50 and above.

Despite not being able to declare the precise reasons for breast cancer, we will turn our attention to the risk factors and determinants that may lead to the emergence of breast cancer. For example, a predominant risk is the individual’s age and gender. An aging woman is more susceptible in contrast to a younger man – yes, men can get it too. The greater the age, the greater the chances of developing a mutation, particularly for women. The risk augments dramatically once women reach the forty mark and are more common in females who are in the seventies.

Lineage and hereditary factors cannot be underestimated when it comes to breast cancer. An individual’s family history may give a strong indication with regards to whether they may be prone to the ailment or not. If a mother has or had breast cancer in the past, there is a chance their daughter may also suffer from a mutation in the future. In fact, the chances of contracting breast cancer are twice as much if the mother has been affected.

Furthermore, speaking of the mutation, it may manifest itself and cause cancer, without having a family history. Almost 10% of all breast cancer cases are considered hereditary, caused by genetic alterations like the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. Having the aforementioned genes is not conclusive evidence that the individual will definitely develop breast cancer, but it does indicate that the associated risk is greater.

There are various other potential causes as well. Women who have dense breasts or have a record of having lumps in their breasts and also females who have had breast cancer in the past and recovered are all at risk of suffering from breast cancer again.

A woman’s hormones may also indicate if they are susceptible to breast cancer. For instance, girls who have menstrual periods earlier than the average age (before 12 years) and also females who experience delayed menopause (after 55 years) are at high risk of breast cancer. Concerned professionals genuinely believe the notion that excessive exposure to the female hormone called estrogen is a deciding factor. This is due to the fact that estrogen stimulates the growth of breast cells, some of which may ultimately become cancerous. The same applies hormone therapy for postmenopausal, which may also augment cancer likelihood. Lastly, a woman’s weight may also influence their chances of breast cancer.  


Unlike other diseases and disorders, cancers are typically categorized by stages. More specifically, breast cancer is divided into five distinct stages.

  • Stage 0

The first stage, which is denoted by a zero, describes non-invasive breast cancers like DCIS (Ductal Carcinoma in Situ). At this phase, there is no tangible evidence of cancer cells or abnormal cells in the body. Hence, a potential break out in any part of the breast is not detected.

  • Stage 1

The next stage involves invasive breast cancer i.e. cancerous cells permeate through breast tissues. Stage 1 is further classified into two subcategories, namely IA and IB. The former delineates invasive breast cancer in which the specific tumor measures up to two centimeters in size but does not spread beyond the breast.

On the other hand, IB describes invasive breast cancer where a tumor is not present. However, there are small pockets of cancer cells in the breast, typically larger than 0.2 millimeters but not more than two millimeters in its entirety. Also, any instance which involves the presence of a tumor in the breast not larger than two centimeters also counts as IB type stage 1 breast cancer.

  • Stage 2

Moreover, stage 2 is divided into subcategories called IIA and IIB. IIA is invasive cancer where there is no tumor in the breast but the cancer is there in one or more axillary lymph nodes. These are typically under the arm or in proximity to the breastbone. Other factors include a tumor that is two centimeters or smaller and has spread as well. Also, ones which are larger than that but have not spread to the lymph nodes also count as IIA breast cancer.

On the other end of the spectrum, IIB is identified by a tumor that is larger than two centimeters in the lymph nodes, if it is between two and five centimeters and has spread to the axillary lymph nodes and also if the tumor exceeds five centimeters in size but is limited to the tissue.

  • Stage 3

Divided into IIIA, IIIB, and IIIC respectively. IIIA is invasive cancer where no tumor is located in the breast but the cancer is found in multiple lymph nodes near the breastbone. The tumor is larger than five centimeters in the lymph nodes or it has spread to multiple nodes also qualify as IIIA type stage three breast cancer.

IIIB transpires when the tumor can be of any size and disseminates on to the chest wall and incites an inflammation or an ulcer as well. It may spread onto several lymph nodes near the breastbone. Finally, IIIC is when there is no sign of breast cancer or if there is a tumor, it may spread to the chest and skin of the breast. IIIC type breast cancer can also disseminate on to the clavicle (collarbone) also.

  • Stage 4

As the numbers indicate, this is the final phase of breast cancer. You may have noticed two facts: the tumor increases in size in ascending order as it moves towards later stages. It began from less than two centimeters to more than five centimeters. Also, as we move towards later stages, the tumor spreads more extensively as well.

Stage 4 occurs when the cancer disseminates beyond the breast and onto other organs of the body, like the lungs, skin, bones etc. Doctors may use the terms advanced or metastatic to describe the severity of breast cancer.

Breast cancer can be treated if detected early. Women are encouraged to get a check up on a frequent basis, especially women who are in their later stages of life and/or have heredity factors that may indicate that they might acquire this disease.