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Early Breast Cancer

Understanding Early Breast Cancer

The term "early breast cancer" refers to breast cancer in stages 0, I and II at the time of diagnosis. With stage 0, the cancer is non-invasive, meaning it has not spread to surrounding normal tissue (sometimes called carcinoma in-situ). In stage I cancer, the tumor is two centimeters in size or smaller and has not spread outside the breast. And, in stage II, either:

  • There is no tumor in the breast, but cancer is found in the axillary lymph nodes (nodes under the arms); or,
  • The tumor is two centimeters or smaller and has spread to the axillary lymph nodes; or,
  • The tumor is two-to-five centimeters and has spread to the axillary lymph nodes; or,
  • The tumor is larger than five centimeters and has not spread to the axillary lymph nodes or,
  • The number of lymph nodes involved with cancer is not more than three. 6

In early breast cancer, the tumor is usually removed by surgery. However, undetectable microscopic deposits of the disease may sometimes remain behind. After several years or even decades, these deposits may result in the cancer coming back, a phenomenon called "recurrence." Health care professionals use a number of factors to predict a woman's risk of recurrence, including but not limited to: whether the tumor has spread to the lymph nodes (known as node-positive breast cancer), tumor size at diagnosis, how the cancer cells look under a microscope (histological grade), if hormone receptors in the tumor are positive or negative, and whether the tumor is positive or negative for the growth-promoting protein HER2/neu.

When health care professionals consider a woman with breast cancer to be at either high or medium risk for recurrence, they typically suggest that following surgery to remove the tumor, the patient receive additional treatment with medication that may include hormonal therapy, such as tamoxifen. Therapy during this postsurgery period is commonly referred to as "adjuvant" therapy or treatment. Recent research suggests that some women who are considered at low risk for recurrence may also benefit from additional therapy after surgery. This research shows that additional therapy helps reduce risk of recurrence and improves overall survival for some women with breast cancer.

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