The 5 Stages Of Breast Cancer Explained

The 5 Stages Of Breast Cancer Explained

The 5 Stages Of Breast Cancer Explained


Breast cancer is the second most common type of cancer in women. While most people are generally aware that there are different stages of breast cancer, many don’t really understand what this means in terms of treatment and prognosis.

In this blog post, we’re going to take a more in-depth look at the five stages of breast cancer and what they mean for patients.



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Breast Cancer Stages 0 to 4: Symptoms and Treatment


Causes of Breast Cancer


Before we get into the stages of breast cancer, let’s briefly touch on some of the things that can cause this type of cancer. There are a number of different risk factors for developing breast cancer, and it’s important to be aware of them so you can take steps to reduce your risk. Some of the most common risk factors include:




The risk of developing the disease increases with age. In fact, according to the National Cancer Institute, the median age at diagnosis is 62 years old.

There are a number of reasons why aging increases the risk of breast cancer.

First, as you age, you're more likely to have pre-existing conditions that can promote the growth of cancerous cells. For example, older women are more likely to have a history of hormone imbalances or dense breasts.

Additionally, the aging process itself can lead to changes in your breast tissue that make it more susceptible to cancer.

Finally, the immune system becomes less effective with age, making it harder for the body to fight off abnormal cells.


Family History


If you have a close relative who has had breast cancer, your risk goes up by about two-fold. And if you have two close relatives who have had breast cancer, your risk goes up five-fold.

This means that if your mom or sister has had breast cancer, you're at a much higher risk than someone whose family doesn't have a history of the disease.


Genetic Mutations


The two most common genetic mutations that increase breast cancer risk are BRCA1 and BRCA2. These mutations are passed down from generation to generation, and they can be inherited from either your mother or father.

If you have a BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation, your risk of developing breast cancer is at 60-85%.


Other genetic mutations that can increase breast cancer risk include:


  • PALB2

  • ATM

  • CHEK2

  • Lynch syndrome


Exposure to Radiation


Although most people think of sunlight as the only type of radiation that can cause cancer, there are actually many types of radiation that can be harmful to your health.

One type of radiation that's been linked to breast cancer is ionizing radiation. This type of radiation is emitted from sources such as x-ray machines and CT scans.

Exposure to ionizing radiation can damage the DNA in your cells, which can lead to the development of cancer.


Excessive Alcohol Consumption


It's estimated that around 4-10% of all breast cancer cases in the US are linked to alcohol. While heavy drinking is clearly the biggest concern, even moderate consumption can increase the risk. The more alcohol you drink, the greater your risk of developing breast cancer.

There are several theories about how alcohol increases the risk of breast cancer, but the most likely explanation is that it damages DNA. This damage can lead to the development of cancerous cells.




While obesity is a risk factor for many different types of cancer, it's especially linked to an increased risk of breast cancer.

In fact, obese women are about 11-12% more likely to develop breast cancer than women of a healthy weight.

The most likely explanation for this link is that excess fat tissue increases levels of estrogen in the body, and estrogen is known to promote the growth of breast cancer cells.

Additionally, obesity can make it more difficult for the body to break down and eliminate cancer-causing agents, allowing them to build up to potentially harmful levels.


Staging for Breast Cancer


Staging is a way of categorizing the severity of cancer based on how far it has spread in the different parts of the body.


There are five main stages of breast cancer:


1. Stage 0 Breast Cancer


This early stage of breast cancer is sometimes called "ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS)," "pre-cancer," "intra-ductal carcinoma," or "non-invasive cancer." In this stage, the tumor cells are still contained within the milk ducts and have not spread to any other tissues.


Stage 0 Breast Cancer Symptoms


Here are some signs and symptoms of stage 0 breast cancer:


  • discharge from the nipple

  • a red, scaly, or crusted area on the nipple or elsewhere on the breast

  • a rash on or around the nipple


Stage 0 Breast Cancer Treatment


In most cases, stage 0 breast cancer can be treated with surgery to remove the affected milk ducts. Depending on the tumor size and location, this may be followed by radiation therapy or hormone therapy.

In some cases, a mastectomy may be necessary.


2. Stage I Breast Cancer


In Stage I, the cancer is small and has not spread to any lymph nodes.

There are two types of Stage I breast cancer–Stage IA and Stage IB.

In Stage IA, the tumor is two centimeters or less and has not spread outside your breast. In Stage IB, the breast tumor is still two centimeters or less, but small clusters of cancer cells have spread to your lymph nodes.


Stage I Breast Cancer Symptoms


Some common signs and symptoms of Stage I breast cancer include:


  • a lump in your breast

  • thickening or swelling of part of the breast

  • irritation or dimpling of breast skin

  • redness or flaky skin in the nipple area or the breast


Stage I Breast Cancer Treatment


For women diagnosed with Stage I breast cancer, your treatment will likely involve surgery to remove the tumor, as well as radiation therapy and/or chemotherapy.

The choice of treatment will depend on a number of factors, including the size and location of the tumor, your age and overall health, and whether or not you have any other health conditions.



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3. Stage II Breast Cancer 


This is when the tumor has grown larger, and the cancer has spread to the underarm lymph nodes on the same side as the breast with cancer.

There are again two types of Stage II–Stage IIA and Stage IIB.

In stage IIA, the tumor may be up to two centimeters and may have spread to a few nearby lymph nodes, or it may be larger than two centimeters but has not spread to the lymph nodes.

Stage IIB means that the tumor is larger than two centimeters and has spread to the lymph nodes.


Stage II Breast Cancer Symptoms


These can include:


  • a lump or thickening in the breast tissue

  • changes to the skin on the breast, such as dimpling or redness

  • changes to the nipple, such as inverting or discharge


Stage II Breast Cancer Treatment


One common treatment option for stage II is surgery. This may involve a lumpectomy, which involves removing the tumor and a small margin of healthy tissue around it, or a mastectomy, which involves removing the entire breast.

In some cases, surgery may be followed by radiation therapy or chemotherapy.


4. Stage III 


This is considered invasive breast cancer. The tumor is now larger than it was in stage II and has spread to surrounding tissues, including the chest wall or skin of the breast. It may have also spread to lymph nodes both above and below the collarbone.

Stage III is divided into sub-stages IIIA, IIIB, and IIIC, depending on how large the tumor is and how many lymph nodes are affected.


Stage IIIA


In stage IIIA, the tumor may be any size but has spread to up until nine axillary lymph nodes or internal mammary lymph nodes near the breast bone.


Stage IIIB


This stage is generally considered inflammatory breast cancer. In this stage, the tumor has spread to the chest wall or skin of the breast. It may also have spread to up to nine axillary lymph nodes or internal mammary lymph nodes.


Stage IIIC


In stage IIIC, the tumor is any size and has spread to more than 10 lymph nodes, the axillary lymph nodes, internal mammary lymph nodes, or infraclavicular lymph nodes near the collarbone. The tumor may also have spread to nearby tissues such as the chest wall or skin of the breast.


Stage III Breast Cancer Symptoms


The symptoms of stage III breast cancer can vary depending on the individual, but there are some common signs that you may experience:


  • a lump in the breast that can be felt 

  • swelling of the breast 

  • skin changes, such as dimpling or an orange peel appearance 

  • nipple changes, such as inverting or discharge


Stage III Breast Cancer Treatment


Stage III breast cancer is a serious condition that requires aggressive treatment. The most common approach is surgery, followed by radiation and/or chemotherapy. Some patients may also receive hormone therapy or targeted therapy.

The type of surgery performed will depend on the size and location of the tumor. A mastectomy (removal of the entire breast) is often recommended for Stage III tumors. This may be followed by radiation therapy to kill any remaining cancer cells.

Chemotherapy is typically given after surgery, in order to increase the chances of a cure, and the drugs to be used will depend on the patient’s individual situation.


5. Stage IV


Also known as "metastatic breast cancer," stage IV is considered the most advanced stage. This is because the cancer has spread from the breast tissue to other parts of the body such as your bones, liver or brain.

Additionally, many are unaware that stage IV breast cancer can actually be a recurrent breast cancer. This is because, in some cases, previous breast cancer cells can remain in the body after treatment and eventually grow into a new tumor.


Stage IV Breast Cancer Symptoms


The symptoms of this stage will depend on which organs are affected by the cancer. 


Some common symptoms include:


  • breast discomfort and pain

  • nipple discharge

  • breast lump

  • changes in skin breast

  • swelling of breasts

  • bone pain

  • fatigue

  • insomnia

  • weight loss

  • shortness of breath

  • neurological problems


Stage IV Breast Cancer Treatment


The most common approach is to use a combination of chemotherapy and hormone therapy. In some cases, surgery may also be recommended.

In general, the goal of treatment is to slow the progression of the disease and to improve the patient's quality of life.


Breast Cancer Survival Rates


According to the American Cancer Society, the five-year relative survival rates for breast cancer are as follows:


  • Localized breast cancer: 99%

  • Regional breast cancer: 86%

  • Distant breast cancer: 29%


It's important to remember, however, that the survival rate is not the same for all women. Some factors that can affect the relative survival rate include the cancer's stage at diagnosis, the age of the woman, and her overall health.


Breast Surgery Post-operative Care


After undergoing surgery to remove the cancer, many women find that their breasts are sensitive and painful. This is why it’s important to have follow-up appointments with your surgeon to ensure that the incision is healing properly.

You'll also likely need to have regular mammograms and breast exams. In some cases, you may also need physical therapy to help regain range of motion and strength in your arm and shoulder.


It’s also important to know the signs and symptoms of a possible infection or complication such as:


  • excessive bleeding

  • redness

  • discharge from the incision site

  • fever

  • increasing pain


If you experience any of these, be sure to contact your surgeon right away.


Here are some additional tips for post-operative care:


  • Get Plenty of Rest

You'll likely feel tired for the first few days or weeks after surgery. It's important to listen to your body and get as much rest as you need.

  • Take Pain Medication as Prescribed

You'll likely have some pain and discomfort after surgery. Your doctor will prescribe pain medication to help you manage this. Be sure to take the medication as directed.

  • Avoid Lifting Heavy Objects

For the first few weeks after surgery, it's best to avoid lifting anything heavier than 10 pounds. Ask someone else to help you with household chores and childcare duties as needed.

  • Avoid Strenuous Activity

Stick to gentle activities such as walking or light stretching for the first few weeks after surgery. Avoid any activity that involves jolting or bouncing your breasts. Slowly increase your activity level as tolerated.

  • Wear a Sports Bra

Wearing a sports bra can help to minimize discomfort and provide support during recovery. In addition, it can help to prevent your breasts from moving around too much during physical activity.

Sports bras are available in a variety of sizes and styles, so it's important to find one that fits well and provides adequate support.




If you've been diagnosed with breast cancer, it's important to be aware of the different stages of the disease. The stage of your cancer will determine what treatment options are available to you.

However, it’s important to remember that everyone’s experience with breast cancer is unique, so even if you fall into one of these categories, your individual case may be different from someone else’s.

Remember, early detection is key when it comes to fighting breast cancer. If you believe you may have any symptoms or if you have any questions about your diagnosis or treatment options, be sure to speak with your doctor immediately.


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