NBCF Research | Stages, Types and Treatment of Breast Cancer

Breast cancer is a complex collection of many different subtypes, and there is no “one-size-fits-all” treatment. Health professionals may refer to a tumour by its size, grade or spread, as hormone receptive, invasive or metastatic.

“Staging” is a classification tool used by health professionals to describe:

  • the size of a breast cancer;
  • whether it is limited to one area in the breast or it has spread to healthy tissues inside the breast; and
  • whether the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes or to other parts of the body beyond the breast.

Stages of breast cancer are numbered from 0 to 4. Classification helps determine the right treatment plan – and is based on a pathologist’s study of any tumour tissue or lymph nodes removed during biopsy or surgery.

Stage 1 or 2 – Early breast cancer

Stage 1 breast cancers are smaller than two centimetres and have not spread to the lymph nodes in the armpit (axillary nodes). Stage 2A breast cancers are larger than 2cm but less than 5cm, and/or have spread to the axillary nodes. The goal of treatm …

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Stage 2 or 3 – Locally advanced breast cancer

Stage 3 and some stage 2 breast cancers are locally advanced breast cancers. These have spread beyond the breast to either the chest wall, skin of the breast, or to lymph nodes in the underarm or breastbone area (internal mammary lymph nodes). They h …

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Stage 4 – Metastatic Breast Cancer

Stage 4 (metastatic or advanced) breast cancer has spread beyond the breast to other organs in the body. Most commonly this is in the bones, lungs, liver or brain. There is currently no way to eradicate stage 4 breast cancer. The goal of treatment is …

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Molecular types of breast cancer

Breast cancer treatments are based on the tumour’s specific biological or molecular signature. Find out about the different types of breast cancer, current research and personalised treatments.

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Breast cancer treatments are based on the specific biological or molecular signature of a tumour. Each tumour is different and requires a personalised approach. The most common treatments include:


The goal of breast cancer surgery is to remove the entire tumour from the breast. A lumpectomy aims to preserve the breast and remove only cancerous tissue. A mastectomy removes the entire breast. Some of the lymph nodes from the underarm area (axillary nodes) may also be removed to see if cancerous cells are present.

Radiation therapy

Radiation is given to the breast, chest, collarbone and underarm to kill any cancer cells that might remain after surgery.


Chemotherapy is a chemical compound that kills rapidly dividing cells, such as cancer cells. It is usually given to those with early breast cancer after surgery (adjuvant chemotherapy). For large tumours, it can be used before surgery (neoadjuvant chemotherapy) to shrink the tumour.

Hormone therapy

Some breast cancer cells need estrogen and/or progesterone (female hormones) to grow. Hormone therapy slows or stops their growth by preventing the cancer cells from getting these hormones. It is usually given after surgery as a long-term preventative treatment. High-risk women who have never had breast cancer may take it as a preventive therapy.

Targeted therapies

A targeted therapy is a drug designed to attack a molecular agent or pathway involved in the development of a particular breast cancer. For example, HER2 positive breast cancer has too many copies of a particular gene known as HER2 which stimulates cell growth. The drug trastuzumab (Herceptin) works by attaching itself to the HER2 receptors on the surface of breast cancer cells, blocking them from receiving growth signals. Unlike chemotherapy drugs, targeted therapies kill cancer cells with little harm to healthy cells.

Personalised therapy and/or precision medicine

Increasingly, research is allowing a combination of personalised treatments to be used. A person’s individual situation, overall health, age, lifestyle risk factors and the molecular make-up of his/her tumour are taken into account to provide the best strategy.


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