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What is Breast Epithelium?

By D.R. Satori
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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The breast epithelium is the cellular tissue lining the milk-producing ducts of the breast. These cells form the first line of defense against the rampant proliferation of breast cancer. Up to 80 percent of all breast tumors originate in breast epithelial cells. Depending on the severity of malignant tissue growth, there are several ways that oncologists can sample epithelial breast tissue in order to prevent widespread growth of the damaged epithelial cells into the healthy cells lining the ducts.

The first sign that breast epithelium is breaking down occurs when the genes of normal epithelial cells are damaged. Normally, there is a gene within the cells that produces antibodies to cancerous cells and another gene which maintains a balance between the number of cells being born and dying. When these genes are destroyed through some environmental agent, the epithelial cells are no longer able to form a continuous defensive boundary around the milk-producing ducts, and cancerous cells proliferate.

Several techniques are used to collect, observe, and identify precancerous cells from the compromised breast epithelium, including ductal lavage, fine needle aspiration, and biopsy. Fine needle aspiration is a safe procedure in which a hollow needle is inserted into a suspected area and a group of cells is carefully removed. A biopsy is a more radical procedure in which a substantial amount of tissue is cut out of breast epithelium when a mass has already been discovered.

Ductal lavage is a technique used to prevent cancerous cells from traveling beyond a single duct into new duct tissue. It is only used in breasts that produce fluid when suction is applied to the duct. A thin catheter injects a saline solution that frees some cells from the lining of the duct before suction commences. Upon examination, the removed fluid may contain some precancerous cells.

As people age, their tissue reproduces more slowly and shrinks. The more the breast tissue shows signs of slower growth and shrinkage with age, called involution, the lower the rate of cancer of the breast epithelium. The greater the breast tissue density, which is the number of cells per cubic area of the breast, the better the that chance a single cell will malfunction and become cancerous. Though estrogen has been singled out as a possible cause of breast cancer, the action of estrogen itself has been found to both promote survival in some cases and encourage cancer cell proliferation in others.

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Discussion Comments

By umbra21 — On Jan 04, 2012

@Iluviaporos - Women need to remember, however that breast cancer is not caused by a single factor. They should absolutely not feel that a decision (or an inability) to not have, or not breastfeed their children led to them having cancer.

Breast cancer has been linked to several different things, although no one thing causes it.

You have greater chances of getting it if you are overweight, a drinker, a smoker, as you get older and so forth.

Eating mushrooms, drinking green tea and eating brassicas (like broccoli) decreases your chances of getting breast cancer.

But nothing will completely protect you. Unfortunately cancer can strike at anyone.

By lluviaporos — On Jan 04, 2012

@pastanaga - Actually women who breastfeed are at lower risk for a host of different conditions, not just breast cancer, so I think you might be right to think it is the hormonal influences rather than something physical.

Women now might find it difficult to really imagine, but before birth control it wasn't uncommon to go their entire adult lives from one pregnancy to another. There just wasn't any way around it without abstinence and women often weren't given that option.

There were also few alternatives to breastfeeding. So, while I think women should of course have access to birth control and so forth now, I also think it's a more natural condition to be pregnant and/or breastfeeding than to not be.

It's hardly surprising that not doing so can lead to abnormal medical conditions, like cancer in the breast epithelium tissue.

Unfortunately, until they find a cure it's a price we have to pay. Frankly, considering the rates of child and mother mortality back in the old days, I don't think we are getting the short end of the stick.

By pastanaga — On Jan 03, 2012

Something that I find interesting is that studies have shown that breast cancer happens more often in women who never breast feed a child.

I can see why that might be so, as the cells in the breast are made to perform this function, and not performing it for years on end leaves them to stagnate.

It might be linked to breast estrogen, as I'm sure breast feeding must do something with hormones. I know that while a woman is breast feeding she will often be unable to become pregnant again, and this is likely due to some action of her hormones.

I'm speculating of course.

To be honest I find it quite unfair that women who don't breastfeed have a higher rate of breast cancer as I'm probably not going to have children at all, and this seems like an added blow.

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