Conditions & Treatments

Breast Cancer

Breast cancer is a condition in which certain cells in the breast become abnormal and multiply without control to form a tumor.

Breast Cancer Overview

The body is made up of various kinds of cells, which normally divide in an orderly way to produce more cells only when they are needed. Cancer is a group of diseases more than 100 types that occur when cells become abnormal and divide without control or order.

What is a tumor?

When cells divide when new cells are not needed, too much tissue is formed. This mass of extra tissue, called a tumor, can be benign or malignant.

  • Benign tumors:

    • Are not cancer

    • Can usually be removed

    • Are rarely a threat to life

    • Do not come back in most cases

    • Do not spread to other parts of the body and the cells do not invade other tissues

  • Malignant tumors:

    • Are cancer

    • May be a threat to life

    • Often can be removed, but sometimes grow back

    • Can invade and damage nearby tissues and organs

    • Metastasize. Cancer cells can break away from a malignant tumor and enter the bloodstream or lymphatic system to form tumors in other parts of the body.

What are the different types of breast cancer?

There are several types of breast cancer, including:

  • Ductal carcinoma. This is the most common type and it begins in the lining of the ducts.

  • Lobular carcinoma. This is another common type and it occurs in the lobules (milk-producing glands).

  • Paget disease. This is a rare form of breast cancer that begins in the glands in or under the skin. It is often characterized by inflamed, red patches on the skin. Because Paget disease often originates from breast duct cancer, the eczema-like cancer usually appears around the nipple.

  • Inflammatory breast cancer. This is a rare form of invasive breast cancer. Usually there is no lump or tumor; rather this cancer makes the skin of the breast look red and feel warm. The breast skin also looks thick and pitted, much like an orange peel.

  • Triple negative breast cancers. These are breast cancers (most often invasive ductal carcinomas) that do not have estrogen receptors and progesterone receptors, and do not have an excess of the HER2 protein on the cancer cell surfaces. These breast cancers tend to occur more often in younger women and in African-American women. They tend to grow and spread faster than most other types of breast cancer.

When breast cancer metastasizes, or spreads outside the breast, cancer cells are often found in the lymph nodes under the arm. If the cancer has reached these nodes, it may mean that cancer cells have spread to other parts of the body.

Cancer that spreads is the same disease and has the same name as the original, or primary cancer. When breast cancer spreads, it is called metastatic breast cancer, even though the secondary tumor is in another organ. This may also be called distant disease.

Types of breast cancer, in alphabetical order, are:

Adenocarcinoma (adenocystic carcinoma)



Ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS)

Infiltrating (or invasive) ductal carcinoma (IDC)

Infiltrating (or invasive) lobular carcinoma (ILC)

Inflammatory breast cancer

Lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS) (also called lobular neoplasia)

Medullary carcinoma

Metaplastic carcinoma

Mixed tumors

Mucinous carcinoma

Paget disease of the nipple

Papillary carcinoma

Phyllodes tumor (also spelled phylloides)

Triple-negative breast cancer

Tubular carcinoma



Treatment Programs

Massachusetts General Hospital understands that a variety of factors influence patients' health care decisions. That's just one reason why we're dedicated to ensuring patients understand their diagnosis and treatment options. Because a single option might not serve all patients, we offer a wide range of coordinated treatments and related services across the hospital. Patients should consult with their primary care doctor or other qualified health care provider for medical advice and diagnosis information.

Select a treatment program for more information:

Cancer Center

  • Breast Cancer Treatment
    The Center for Breast Cancer provides comprehensive, compassionate care for patients with any stage of breast cancer.

  • Cancer Imaging and Intervention
    The Cancer Imaging and Intervention Program at Massachusetts General Hospital Imaging combines leading-edge technology and the expertise of specialty-trained radiologists to provide comprehensive cancer detection and monitoring, plus image-guided treatments for specific types of cancer.
  • Breast Imaging
    The Breast Imaging Program at Massachusetts General Hospital Imaging provides state-of-the-art exams including breast tomosynthesis, the expertise of specialized breast radiologists, and a network of convenient metro Boston locations.
Obstetrics and Gynecology

  • Midlife Women's Health Center
    The Massachusetts General Hospital Midlife Women’s Health Center brings together experts from more than 15 specialties to improve, promote and advance health care for women at menopause and beyond through research, collaboration and education.
Division of Surgical Oncology

  • Breast Cancer Surgery Program
    Massachusetts General Hospital's Breast Cancer Surgery Program provides expert care and state-of-the-art breast cancer surgery within a multidisciplinary Cancer Center team.

Screening with mammography and breast MRI effective for women with high cancer risk

The combination of MR imaging and mammography can provide a cost-effective way of improving life expectancy for women who have an increased risk of breast cancer, according to a study authored by Mass General Imaging radiologist Janie M Lee.

Experts question motives of mammogram guidelines

Critics of the guidelines, issued on Monday by the US Services Task Force, an independent panel sponsored by the US Agency for Healthcare Quality, say the new guidelines are a step backward and will lead to more cancer deaths.

3D mammogram newest weapon against breast cancer

Important breast cancer detection method, mammograms, gets a 3D upgrade; Doctors get to "look through" tissue.

3D mammography

MGH Hotline 3.18.11

Mammograms and thyroid cancer: The facts about breast-cancer screening

Alarmist claims about a connection between thyroid cancer rates and mammography are not only without merit but also potentially harmful if they deter women from their annual screening.

Poll: Women in their 40s want mammograms

About 57 percent of women believe mammograms should start at age 40, according to a Harris Interactive/HealthDay poll.

Mass General researcher gets grant to study optical breast imaging

Massachusetts Life Sciences Center has awarded Qianqian Fang, PhD, and Philips Healthcare a $500,000 grant aimed at equipping traditional mammography systems with a low-cost optical imaging system with the potential to dramatically improve breast cancer detection.

Are 3D mammograms a breast cancer breakthrough?

In what doctors hope is a big step forward, new 3-D mammograms promise better detection and fewer false alarms for hundreds of thousands of American women.

Mass General Imaging expands 3D mammography service to Waltham

Mass General West Imaging - Waltham introduces new technology that improves cancer detection while reducing callbacks.

Mass General research addresses early breast screening for gene-mutation carriers

Starting breast cancer screening as early as age 25 may help women who carry a genetic mutation linked to a higher risk of cancer live longer, according to a U.S. study.

Mass General-led Breast Cancer Studies Received early New England Journal of Medicine Publication

Two New England Journal of Medicine papers reporting the results of separate Phase III clinical trials for the treatment of advanced breast cancer recently received early, online first release because the studies were presented at the December 2011 CTRC-AACR San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium.

Innovations in Breast Cancer Treatment

As part of the multidisciplinary approach to breast cancer treatment, Mass General Cancer Center patients receive care from an integrated team of pathologists, radiologists, and medical, surgical, and radiation oncologists.

New Frontier in Breast Cancer Recovery

William Gerald Austen Jr., MD, chief, Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, is using liposuction techniques to advance less complicated breast reconstruction, with more natural outcomes.

Digital 3-D mammograms show promise

Device companies race to improve breast cancer screening, but the effectiveness of new methods is still being studied.

A new kind of mammogram comes to Revere

The latest breakthrough in mammography, breast tomosynthesis (3D mammography) is now available at the MGH Revere HealthCare Center.

Research shows improved recall rates and cancer detection with breast tomosynthesis

A large-population study found that breast tomosynthesis is associated with better performance for breast cancer screening.

Breast Cancer Awareness Month 2014 at Mass General

In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October, Mass General Imaging is hosting educational events to support women's breast health. Learn more about this year's events in Boston, Waltham, Danvers, Revere and Chelsea.

Exercise breast cancer prevention

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and reminders are everywhere for women to remain vigilant about screening and maintaining a healthy lifestyle – including daily exercise. Lidia Schapira, MD, medical oncologist with the MGH Center for Breast Cancer, shares her insights on the benefits of staying fit.

Breast Cancer Awareness 2015: Mass General Events

In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October, Mass General Imaging is hosting educational events to support women’s breast health. Learn more about this year's events in at Mass General locations in Boston, Waltham, Danvers and Revere.

Breast Tomosynthesis

Pioneered at Mass General Imaging, breast tomosynthesis provides a clear view through overlapping layers of breast tissue in order to improve breast-cancer detection while reducing callbacks.

Breast tomosynthesis gains momentum

Learn more about breast tomosynthesis in this podcast featuring Mass General staff radiologist and Harvard Medical School instructor Phoebe Freer, MD. Courtesy of Harvard Medical Labcast, March 2012, Harvard Medical School Office of Communications and External Relations

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