Cancer Types | Breast Cancer - National Foundation for Cancer Research

Breast Cancer

Breast Cancer

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women worldwide, claiming the lives of hundreds of thousands of women each year. Although it’s rare, men can also be diagnosed with breast cancer. With breast cancer continuing to impact so many people, it’s important to understand the disease and what strides researchers are making.

Key Facts

  • An estimated 284,200 new cases of breast cancer will be diagnosed in the U.S. in 2021, and an estimated 44,130 deaths will occur.
  • More than 3.5 million breast cancer survivors live in the U.S. today.
  • The lifetime risk of getting breast cancer in the U.S. is about 1 in 8 for women and 1 in 833 for men.
  • Research shows only 5-10% of breast cancers are hereditary.
  • Dense breasts can be 1.5 to 2 times more likely to develop cancer. If you have dense breasts, ask your doctor about extra screening tests, like ultrasound or MRI, to check for tumors that a mammography might have missed.
  • Triple-negative breast cancer differs from other types of invasive breast cancer as they grow and spread faster, have limited treatment options, and a worse prognosis (outcome).
  • A lump isn’t the only sign of breast cancer. Call your doctor if you notice any of the changes shown below.
Source: American Cancer Society’s Cancer Facts & Figures 2021

Signs and Symptoms

A symptom is a change in the body that a person can see and/or feel. A sign is a change that the doctor sees during an examination or on a laboratory test result. If you have any of the symptoms below, it does not mean you have cancer but you should see your doctor or health care professional so that the cause can be found and treated, if needed

  • Swelling of all or part of a breast (even if no lump is felt)
  • Skin dimpling (sometimes looking like an orange peel)
  • Breast or nipple pain
  • Nipple retraction (turning inward)
  • Nipple or breast skin that is red, dry, flaking or thickened 
  • Nipple discharge (other than breast milk)
  • Swollen lymph nodes (Sometimes a breast cancer can spread to lymph nodes under the arm or around the collar bone and cause a lump or swelling there, even before the original tumor in the breast is large enough to be felt.)
  • New lump or mass on breast (can be painless, tender, soft, or round)
Source: American Cancer Society 2021
Pink Breast Cancer Ribbon
3500000
survivors in the U.S. today
1
in 8 women will be diagnosed
2
times more likely with dense breasts

Breast Cancer Research

In addition to specific projects listed below, genomics research is helping us attack breast cancer – and all types of cancer. NFCR has distinguished itself from other organizations by emphasizing long-term, transformative research and working to move people toward cancer genomics.

Daniel A. Haber, Ph.D.
Daniel A. Haber, M.D., Ph.D.

The recurrence of cancer in a different site years after completing treatment is a daunting fear for breast cancer patients. Circulating tumor cells (CTCs) in the blood are shed from primary tumors, can lodge in distant sites and remain ‘at rest’ for years only to reawake and grow. Dr. Daniel Haber is using his team’s advanced micro-engineered device to capture the rare CTCs among billions of normal cells in a standard blood sample. The researchers are using the CRISPR gene-editing tool on the captured breast CTCs to identify genes allowing tumor cells to ‘rest’ and ‘reawake’. Ultimately, therapies may be developed to suppress the genes, giving women greater hope for surviving the recurrence of breast cancer.

James P. Basilion, Ph.D.
James P. Basilion, Ph.D.

Dr. Jim Basilion has developed a “smart” probe that when topically applied to the cancer during surgery, greatly improves surgeon’s ability to detect tumor margins. The smart probe aims to reduce repeat surgeries at a later time for removal of remaining cancer tissue which for lumpectomies, can be 25% of the time. Use of the probe may also reduce the chance of cancer spread. With support from the NFCR AIM-HI Translational Research Initiative, the probe is being optimized for a Phase I clinical trial to use in lumpectomies for lumpectomies to further enhance cure rates for patients with early stage breast cancer.

Xiang-Lei Yang, Ph.D. and Paul Schimmel, Ph.D.
Xiang-Lei Yang, Ph.D. and Paul Schimmel, Ph.D.

Aminoacyl-tRNA synthetases (aaRS) are vital ancient enzymes that make proteins in all living things. Dr. Paul Schimmel and Dr. Xiang-Lei Yang, experts in aaRS research, also study the enzyme’s other unexpected roles. One aaRS, SerRS, thwarts cancer’s growth and may activate the immune system. SerRS may also be a suppressor of metastasis as enzyme levels are significantly decreased in breast tissue during metastasis. Their research may lead to a novel way to treat women with triple negative breast cancer, offering them hope that their cancer can be effectively treated.

Danny R. Welch, Ph.D.
Danny R. Welch, Ph.D.

Dr. Danny Welch and his team are exploring how mitochondria – a specialized cell part that generates energy for our bodies – may determine why breast cancer metastases develop in some patients, but not in others. Differences in tumor formation, metastasis location and responses to therapy could be from our mitochondrial DNA. This research may lead to a simple blood test to guide doctors in treating patients who are susceptible to metastasis and may need more aggressive treatment, or spare other patients of unnecessary harsh side effects.

Dr. Welch’s team has also discovered eight genes that get turned off in cancer, as the cells become metastatic. BRMS1 gene, discovered in breast cancer cells, normally regulates gene expression to suppress metastasis. BRMS1 also makes metastatic cells remain dormant or in a ‘sleep mode’. This research can lead to unique anti-metastasis therapeutics such as smaller proteins that ‘mimic’ the function of the turned-off BRMS1 gene and may arrest breast cancer metastasis.

Dr. Ron DePinho
Ronald A. DePinho, M.D.

STAT3 is a major signaling protein in over 50% of cancers and signals tumor formation, spreading and suppression of our immune system. Developing a drug that targets STAT3 has been a challenge for the research community, earning it the label of ‘undruggable’.

Dr. Ron DePinho and his colleagues used computer-based drug screening of hundreds of thousands of compounds from chemical libraries to identify inhibitors of STAT3 protein when tested in complex models of various cancers. With funds from the NFCR AIM-HI Translational Research Initiative,the scientists have brought the lead inhibitor to clinical trials. Patients with triple negative breast cancer and other advanced cancers are being treated today with the STAT3 inhibitor, giving them hope that their lives may be saved.

susan horwitz
Dr. Susan Horwitz
Dr. Amos B. Smith, III
Dr. Amos B. Smith, III

Dr. Susan Horwitz’s work has been instrumental in the development of Taxol®, a natural product drug used to treat over 1.5 million breast, ovarian, lung and pancreatic cancer patients. Dr. Horwitz collaborated with organic chemist Dr. Amos B. Smith, III to develop other natural products to overcome resistance to Taxol that patient may experience. A lead synthetic analogue of discodermolide (a natural product of a Caribbean Sea sponge) has been developed that shows promise for a new treatment for triple negative breast cancer and other cancers.

Related Content

Life Happens Quickly: Aly’s Story

As we grow older, we learn to understand that life happens quickly. Aly Newel learned just how quickly things could happen when she was screened for, diagnosed with, and received breast cancer treatment, all within 22 days. After losing her mother to breast cancer, Aly devotedly underwent her mammograms as recommended since turning 30 years old. In early 2016, she suddenly realized that she had missed her annual appointment by nearly six months. She quickly made an appointment, not thinking too much about the lapse as everything felt normal.  “My general practitioner told me that the test had detected abnormal cells in my left breast and that she was referring me to a surgeon,” Aly shared. “It wasn’t more than a couple of days before I was with the breast surgeon in absolute shock at how quickly this had happened. With everything that happened with my mom, I was scared.” Aly soon received the biopsy results that quickly filled her with dread as she learned she had breast cancer. Luckily, the ductal carcinoma in-situ was in the early stages and completely treatable.  “I was stunned,” Aly reflected. “How can he have just told me that I have breast cancer, yet it is curable? Honestly, it took me a while to get my head around that.” Before she could fully wrap her head around the news, Aly had a hook wire insertion and lumpectomy.  “These operations sound really scary, but they aren’t at all,” Aly said. “The surgeon came to see me after the operation and told me that everything had gone really well and that the cancer was gone.” Aly felt amazing – pain-free and thrilled to be rid of the nasty disease. She had zero pain and only a little scar on her left breast for which to remember the whirlwind experience. With just a single dose of radiotherapy, she closed this scary yet short chapter.  “I would like to share my story because as a mother of two daughters, I feel that it’s really important to promote early detection by encouraging women to become familiar with the regular feel of their breasts and participate in the screening programs that they are eligible for,” Aly stated. “I also think it’s important for people to realize that being diagnosed with breast cancer doesn’t necessarily have a bad outcome if it’s found early.” Life happens quickly, and sometimes it is easy to forget the small steps that make a big difference – like scheduling regular mammograms. Luckily, the National Foundation for Cancer Research (NFCR) has you covered. Follow NFCR on social media or check out our Cancer-Fighting Lifestyle Tips to keep you and your loved ones safe.  Additional Reads You May Enjoy: Let’s talk about Mammograms with Dr. Alexia Matheson Don’t Delay: Skipping One Mammogram Can Significantly Increase Risk of Death from Breast Cancer Mastectomy and Breast Reconstruction: What Breast Cancer Patients Should Know   Stay connected with the cancer community! Receive NFCR’s monthly e-newsletter and blogs featuring stories of inspiration, support resources, cancer prevention tips, and more. Sign up here.

Don’t Delay: Skipping One Mammogram Can Significantly Increase Risk of Death from Breast Cancer

One mammogram every two years doesn’t sound so bad – but what happens if a woman skips one? A recent study warns that missing just one mammogram before being diagnosed with cancer significantly increases a woman’s probability of dying from the disease.  The Importance of Mammograms Mammograms allow medical professionals to examine an x-ray of the breast tissue and look for any abnormalities or hints of cancer that other methods may not be able to detect. Having regularly scheduled mammograms presents an opportunity for early diagnosis, which significantly increases the ability to administer successful treatment. As signs and symptoms are often difficult to observe at early stages, mammograms have been the gold standard used for cancer detection and may reduce mortality by up to 40%. Because of this, the United States Preventative Services Task Force recommends that women aged 50-74 undergo a mammography every two years. Alarming Study Results In this ground-breaking study, a research team led by Stephen W. Duffy and Laszlo Tabar analyzed data from nearly 550,000 women with access to mammograms between 1992 and 2016. This data was divided into two groups – women who attended the two of the most recent mammograms before being diagnosed with breast cancer and those who did not.  The team discovered that the group who did not attend the two most recent mammograms before their diagnosis were more likely to have died within ten years of being diagnosed. The significant findings showed that 50% more of these group members had died than those who attended both most recent appointments. Overall, women who attended only one of the two breast cancer screenings had 29% higher mortality than those who attended both. While the research team anticipated a higher mortality rate among women who missed even one mammogram before their diagnosis, the disparity was astounding. As researchers unveil more evidence to highlight the importance of mammograms, however, medical professionals continue to identify a decrease in the number of women who undertake regular screenings. Tragically, the COVID-19 pandemic has also caused a significant decline in the number of women attending their regular mammograms.  What Next? Duffy, Laszlo, and their team hope their recent findings will inspire women to keep up-to-date with their mammogram appointments and plan to continue further prognostic research into the mechanisms of this effect. The team will explore to what extent regular attendance improves the prognosis of interval cancers and screen-detected cancers.  While the world eagerly awaits the following report, women must continue adhering to the current mammogram recommendations. Those with questions regarding their personal situation and recommendations should speak to their general practitioner.  For more information regarding breast cancer, please visit NFCR’s breast cancer page.  Note: The third Friday in October we recognize National Mammography Day. This year it will be celebrated on October 15, 2021. Please take this opportunity to schedule your mammogram or share important information with loved ones. Additional Reads You May Enjoy: Let’s talk about Mammograms with Dr. Alexia Matheson National Mammography Day 5 Ways You Can Show Support for Breast Cancer Patients Stay connected with the cancer community! Receive NFCR’s monthly e-newsletter and blogs featuring stories of inspiration, support resources, cancer prevention tips, and more. Sign up here.

Controlling the Uncontrollable: HER2 Breast Cancer

It’s that time of year when pink ribbons begin appearing everywhere – from shopfronts to social media. These ribbons are known to be Breast Cancer Awareness ribbons. It’s no coincidence that pink ribbons are the most easily recognized as breast cancer is the most common cancer in women worldwide. In fact, one in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer.  Tragically, the likelihood of experiencing metastasis, or cancer that spreads to other parts of the body, is high amongst these patients. Understanding and preventing metastasis is crucial to increasing the survival rates of this disease. Thankfully, National Foundation for Cancer Research (NFCR)-funded researcher Dr. Rakesh K. Jain and his team are dedicated to exploring this phenomenon and recently unearthed a game-changing discovery.  Their mission: HER2 Dr. Jain and his team knew that genes contain the recipes for various proteins required for healthy cells to function properly and that some genes and proteins can influence how breast cancer behaves and responds to treatment. They were particularly interested in exploring how to control and inhibit metastasis in one particular gene related to breast cancer, the HER2 gene.  The HER2 (human epidermal growth factor receptor 2) gene makes HER2 proteins, which are receptors on breast cells. Typically, HER2 receptors help control how a healthy breast cell grows, divides, and repairs itself. But in about 10% to 20% of breast cancers, the HER2 gene doesn’t work correctly and makes too many copies of itself (known as HER2 gene amplification). These extra HER2 genes tell breast cells to make too many HER2 receptors which makes breast cells grow and divide in an uncontrolled way. Patients with metastatic HER2+ breast cancer often experience treatment resistance, disease recurrences, and metastases. Dr. Jain and his team believed that by modifying the tumor framework and increasing oxygenation in the tumor, it might be possible for an existing medication to improve the outcome of radiotherapy and inhibit disease progression in a highly metastatic HER2+ breast cancer. Their findings The team established a metastatic HER2+ breast cancer line and used it to generate a similar environment in mice. Three days after tumor implantation, Dr. Jain and his team administered seven days of Losartan, a drug mainly used to treat high blood pressure. In some mice, the research team followed the seven days of Losartan with 20 Gy single dose local irradiation on day 10. In a third group, they followed the seven days of Losartan with 20 Gy fractionated irradiation on days 10-14. For each group, the researchers analyzed the tumor-growth delay, development of metastases, survival rates, tumor density, and oxygen levels in the tumor.  Much to the excitement of cancer researchers worldwide, the combination of Losartan and local irradiation significantly enhanced tumor response. The tumors were deprived of oxygen, whereas healthy cells remained oxygen-rich. This finding suggests that combining Losartan with radiotherapy is a potential new treatment strategy for controlling and inhibiting metastasis in HER2+ breast cancer – a potentially life-saving discovery. Other exciting HER2 discoveries  HER2 has been a hot topic in the cancer world for years. In fact, Dr. Jain is just one of the NFCR-funded researchers paving the way to better treatment options related to HER2. Dr. […]