Breast Cancer Types

Though every woman with breast cancer has a unique experience, researchers have identified major types of breast cancer to help us better understand the disease. They refer to these various types as different “carcinomas.” Your doctor will find out what type of breast cancer you have in order to plan the best treatment for you.

A breast-cancer diagnosis of any type can feel overwhelming, but we hope that this information helps you feel more confident as you work to overcome the challenges of cancer.

Doctors classify breast cancer primarily according to:

Doctors also refer to recurrent breast cancer, which means cancer that reappears after treatment.

By Location 

  • Ductal breast cancer starts in the breast ducts—the parts of the breast where milk travels. For more information on medullary breast cancer, a rare type that can start in the ducts, please see the glossary
  • Lobular breast cancer starts in the lobes of the breast—the parts responsible for milk production.
  • Paget’s Disease starts in the nipple. It commonly comes with marked symptoms, including itching, burning and an eczema-like condition around the nipple, sometimes accompanied by oozing or bleeding.
  • Phyllodes tumors are rare tumors that occur in the stroma or, connective tissue, of the breast.  These tumors are more common in premenopausal women and can be benign (not cancerous) or cancerous.
  • Inflammatory breast cancer occurs in the skin of the breast. Unlike other breast cancers, it frequently does not have a lump.

By Spread

In situ refers to cancer that has remained in the tissue where it started. All of the types of breast cancer listed above can stay in situ. Ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) remains in the ducts, for example. Lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS) remains in the lobules.

Invasive cancers have moved out of breast ducts or lobules into nearby breast tissue. If in situ cancers begin to spread, doctors call them invasive.

Lymph nodes: Once breast cancer has become invasive, it can move to other parts of the body, most commonly to the lymph nodes in the underarm (also called the axillary lymph nodes). Lymph nodes are located throughout your body and help make up the lymphatic system, an important part of your immune system. The lymph nodes can provide an avenue for cancer to spread to other parts of the body. 

Metastatic refers to cancer that started in the breasts but has moved to other parts of the body. It has spread beyond the breast and surrounding lymph nodes. You might also hear this called stage IV, mets or advanced breast cancer, though “advanced” can also describe stage-3 cancers. See our page on stages for more. Metastatic breast cancer can feel especially intimidating, but know that many women live long, productive lives after this diagnosis.

Recurrent Breast Cancer

Breast cancer sometimes returns after treatment, even when it seemed to have disappeared. Doctors call this recurrent breast cancer. Recurrence, like metastatic breast cancer, can seem overwhelming—but the young women of YSC know that we can face it with confidence and hope.

Recurrent breast cancer can remain in situ or it can spread.

  • Local recurrence means breast cancer that returns to the same place it started. For example, a patient treated for ductal breast cancer may have recurrent breast cancer in the breast ducts.
  • Regional recurrence means breast cancer that returns after treatment and appears in other, nearby parts of the body.
  • Distant recurrence means breast cancer that has returned and metastasized, meaning it has reappeared and spread to distant parts of the body. This can also be called advanced, metastatic, or Stage IV  breast cancer.

Testing for Type

Preliminary information about your cancer’s type will come from a biopsy and imaging tests such as ultrasounds, mammograms and MRIs. More specific answers can come from your pathology report. Your doctor will also describe your cancer in more detail by classifying its “stage.” Read more about the stages of cancer.