When discussing breast cancer, many people may assume that it is a singular disease.
In reality, many cases of breast cancer are different from each other and can vary from person to person.
Dr. Asma Latif is an oncologist at Sturdy Memorial in Attleboro and treats breast cancer patients. Latif said breast cancer differs depending on several factors and has seen various types, each with its molecular structures, treatments and origins.
“There are a lot of different types of breast cancer,” Latif said. “Everyone’s cancer is different.”
According to Latif, breast cancers are separated into invasive and non-invasive categories. Non-invasive cancers, also known as stage zero breast cancers, occur when abnormal cells are in the ducts of the breast but have not invaded the area.
The most common stage zero breast cancer is ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS). Latif said these cancers develop in the lining of milk ducts and can be treated with surgery, radiation, and occasionally, anti-estrogen medication to prevent the growth of the cells.
“A lot of these cells feed on estrogen,” Latif said. “By starving them of their food, they don’t grow.”
Invasive breast cancers occur when the cells in the breast ducts move to the rest of the breast and different organs. According to Latif, the most common invasive breast cancer is invasive ductal carcinoma (IDC), found in 70 to 80% of women with breast cancer.
The second most common invasive breast cancer is invasive lobular carcinoma (ILC), located in the glands that produce milk. When these cancers break away from the breast area and move to other organs, they are known as metastatic breast cancers, which can cause organ failure and death.
“If the tumors are small in size, some patients can have upfront surgery,” Latif said. “When the cancer spreads to other places, we don’t treat the breast immediately. We send the tumor tissue to find any DNA patterns and look for vulnerabilities in the cancer cells.”
Latif said oncologists use microscopes to determine if a tumor has cancer cells and then classify the cancer as IDC or ILC. They look to see if the cells are being fueled by estrogen, progesterone, or HER2 protein receptors to determine what treatments, such as anti-estrogen pills or intravenous procedures, are most effective in neutralizing the tumor’s growth.
Some tumors may lack all three receptors, making options for treatment limited. These “triple negative” breast cancers make up 15% of diagnoses and are more commonly seen in younger women, as well as Black and Hispanic women. Other rare forms of breast cancer include inflammatory breast cancer—where instead of a lump, a rash forms—metaplastic breast cancer, and male breast cancer.
Latif said there has been an increase in patients screened for cancer at Sturdy Health, many of whom were young women. Latif said it’s unclear what is causing this increase, but some studies have pointed to poor diet and increasing body weight as a potential etiology.
She said while medicine has helped oncologists diagnose and treat breast cancer faster, it is still important for women to schedule an appointment or mammogram if they find any symptoms.
“In the past few years, we have been catching up,” Latif said. “We have come a long way in personalized medicine for every form of cancer.”