What to Know After Receiving A Breast Cancer Diagnosis
For years we’ve taken part in Paint the Wall Pink, an annual event where Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina (Blue Cross NC) employees, volunteers and breast cancer survivors travel to Charlotte to make their mark on Charlotte Motor Speedway.
During the event, we transform the pit wall into a pink masterpiece to promote breast cancer awareness and proactive screenings.
However, the event isn’t all about painting the pit wall. Another large part is hearing from breast cancer survivors on their journey and how they can live fearless through their diagnosis. Blue Cross NC employee Robin Miller, a 10-year survivor, reflected on her time going through treatment and the difficulty she had with sharing her story. Now, those fears are gone, and she sees how she can help others who are struggling with breast cancer.
We are inspired by stories like Robin’s and also want to help those who have been or know someone who has been, recently diagnosed with breast cancer. We know this can be a confusing time with a lot of things to figure out and terminology to navigate. To help you make sense of it all, we’ve compiled a list of some of the most common associated breast cancer terms that can serve as a guide to complicated conversations.
What Does it All Mean? Need to Know Breast Cancer Terminology
When diagnosed with breast cancer, your doctor will typically assign a stage to your diagnosis, in order to decide on a treatment plan. The stage is determined by the TNM system, which analyzes the size of the tumor (T), whether the cancer is in the lymph nodes (N) and whether cancer has spread to other parts of the body (M). Stages range from 0-4.
Breast Cancer Stages
- Stage 0: The lowest level on the scale, stage 0 means that the cancer cells or abnormal cells are present but have not invaded surrounding
- Stage 1: The next level, stage 1, means that the cancer cells have invaded surrounding breast tissue but are still confined to a limited area. This stage is further broken down into 1A and 1B.
- Stage 2: At stage 2, the cancer tumor is larger, between 20 and 50 mm and has spread to some lymph node and/or breast tissue or the tumor is larger than 50 mm and has not spread to any lymph nodes. Similar to stage 1, this stage is further broken down into 2A and 2B.
- Stage 3: At stage 3, the cancer tumor is larger than at stage 2, typically over 50 mm and/or has either begun to spread to nearby areas such as the chest or has spread into a higher number of lymph nodes. This stage is further broken down into three stages 3A, 3B, and 3C.
- Stage 4: The most advanced stage of breast cancer, stage 4 is when cancer has spread into distant other organs or lymph nodes beyond the breast.
One thing that can greatly influence the stage of a cancer diagnosis is the spread to your lymph nodes, but there is often confusion on what these things even are. Your lymph nodes are part of your immune system and are bean-shaped structures. They help fight infections by filtering fluids via your white blood cells. When these structures swell, it typically means they’re actively fighting an infection or have filtered unfamiliar cells – like cancer.
Often after diagnosis, you and your doctor will figure out your treatment plan. Depending on your stage of cancer, treatment may vary. However, chemotherapy is often part of the plan. Chemotherapy is a drug treatment that attacks and kills cancer cells to prevent them from spreading. There are a few different ways chemotherapy can be delivered.
- Chemotherapy Infusion: Also known as IV (intravenous, by a tube placed in your vein) infusion, this type of delivery is when medication is delivered directly into your bloodstream via an IV in your arm or chest.
- Oral Chemotherapy2: While typically more expensive, this type of chemotherapy does not have to be administered in a hospital or clinic. Instead, the medication is taken via a pill. The pill is just as strong as the medication received through an IV infusion.
Lumpectomy and Mastectomy
A lumpectomy or mastectomy is the most common recommended surgeries to remove tumor cells from the body. Depending on the stage, chemotherapy may happen before or after surgery.
- Lumpectomy: During a lumpectomy, a surgeon goes in and removes the portion of the breast that is infected by cancer. The whole breast is not removed.
- Mastectomy: In a mastectomy, the whole breast is removed. Sometimes doctors may recommend a double mastectomy depending on the risk of your cancer.
After surgery, your doctor may recommend radiation. Radiation is a type of therapy where strong x-rays or protons are used to destroy cancer cells. This treatment is typically not as intensive as chemotherapy since it is more localized.
If you have a family history of breast cancer or are diagnosed before the age of 45, doctors typically recommend undergoing BRCA gene testing. A mutation of the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene can raise the risk of breast cancer. The best way to determine if a mutation is present is to go through a gene blood test with your doctor.
We know that navigating a breast cancer diagnosis may be a difficult and stressful time for you and your loved ones, but you don’t have to undergo this journey alone. We have case managers at Blue Cross NC that can help you navigate your diagnosis. We also encourage you to use our Find a Doctor tool and Find a Drug tool to access care that’s best for you.