The breasts

Breasts are made up of fat, supportive (connective) tissue and glandular tissue containing lobes. The lobes (milk glands) are where breast milk is made. They connect to the nipple by a network of fine tubes called milk ducts.

Side view of the breast
Side view of the breast

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It is common for a woman’s breasts to be a different size or shape from each other. They also feel different at different times of the month. For example, just before a woman’s period, her breasts may feel lumpy. As a woman gets older, her breasts may become smaller and feel softer.

The lymphatic system

The lymphatic system helps to protect us from infection and disease. It is made up of fine tubes called lymphatic vessels. These connect to groups of bean-shaped lymph nodes (sometimes called lymph glands) all over the body.

The lymph nodes filter bacteria (germs) and disease from a liquid called lymph, which travels around the body in the blood.

Once the lymph is filtered, it is returned to the blood. If you have an infection, for example a sore throat, the lymph nodes close by often swell while they fight it.

Sometimes, cancer can spread through the lymphatic system. If the cancer cells spread outside the breast, they are most likely to go to lymph nodes in the armpit. You will usually have tests on the lymph nodes to look for cancer cells. There are also lymph nodes near the breastbone and behind the collarbone.

The lymph nodes near the breasts
The lymph nodes near the breasts

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Back to Understanding breast cancer

What is cancer?

There are more than 200 different kinds of cancer, each with its own name and treatment.

Cancer and cell types

Cancers are grouped into types. Types of cancer often behave and respond to treatments in different ways.

Why do cancers come back?

Sometimes, tiny cancer cells are left behind after cancer treatment. These can divide to form a new tumour.